To learn the latest about TJJD’s response to COVID-19, visit our page dedicated to the pandemic.

By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications


Burritos were a hit. As were the omelets, chicken carbonara, and pancakes made from scratch.

But perhaps the most memorable dish was the fancy grilled cheese sandwich made with apples. At first, the boys in cooking class at Willoughby Halfway House rolled their eyes and laughed at the concept, said Cassie Green-Stephens, the volunteer instructor who created a weekly cooking program for Willoughby about eight months ago.

“They were like this is insane -- and then they liked it!” she said. They made their fancy grilled cheese sandwiches with a choice of cheddar, Swiss or Havarti cheeses and ham or turkey and maybe tomatoes, but also, those apples. She encouraged them to try it. ”I think all of them liked them, even the pickiest liked it! That felt like a big triumph.”

Green-Stephens is hoping for another triumph amid a difficult time with a virtual online program she’s created for the boys.

As Texas grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, TJJD recently restricted visitors to facilities. That means cooking classes, and other volunteer-led activities, have been suspended. Green-Stephens has risen to the moment with a plan to continue the meditation that she leads at the start of every class.

She made her first virtual meditation, on an ocean theme, soon after Volunteer Coordinator Y. Diane Caldwell notified her of the new rules and she plans to create a new one each week.

The 10-minute meditations may even be especially helpful during this time of uncertainty. They will help her maintain an important connection with the boys she mentors at Willoughby, but can be used by any TJJD facility, Green-Stephens said.

A health coach, a cross between a nutritionist and a life coach, Green-Stephens gives talks to groups on healthful living. She and her husband also produce and sell an elderberry syrup. She’s both an expert and practitioner of proactive health measures, sound nutrition and daily meditation.

And the latter, she says, is integral.

“What I hope with the meditation is that it’s giving them a skill,” she said. “I teach it to them and we talk about why it’s helpful.”

Working with the halfway house teens each week – about a dozen participate in her classes – she sees their efforts to gain control of sometimes turbulent emotions. She tells them that meditation can be a tool in the toolbox to help when they’re feeling down or even angry.

”Meditation helps create a pause between your thought and your action – that’s something I really try to hammer home with them. I don’t know why they’re in the facility, but if you can train your brain to not act on impulse, that can really help.”

Like the cooking classes, the meditation helps the boys build confidence. The quiet focus grounds and centers them, and can break through to the youth who’s tense or wont to participate.    

”I see kids who are just grrrrr, mad. So I ask them to sit in meditation,” she said; the group murmurs an “Om“ or “Ohm” mantra and some of the boys may even giggle, which is fine. “And then all of a sudden, they want to come and participate in the cooking.”

“There’s so much power just in the meditation.”