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By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications

At TJJD family days, parents, grandparents, siblings and mentors rush in with a smile and a hug for the young people they’ve come to see.

Families snuggle into groups over plates of barbecue and games of UNO and checkers. They hold hands, whisper secrets, and grin at each other across the table.

But this happy picture can be wrenchingly painful for the handful of TJJD youth who have no family to visit on such special days. For myriad reasons -- family estrangement, addiction, incarceration, dislocation, prohibitive travel costs -- these kids expect no relatives, not even a cousin, to turn up.

Laura and Lynn Fletcher pose for a photo with a youth. They have their arms around the Giddings State School youth, and are smiling broadly. We only see the back of the photographer in the foreground.That’s where Lynn and Laura Fletcher come in. The Houston couple, parents to four adult children and foster parents to 27 throughout the years, decided in 2012 that they had room in their hearts for even more young people and became a near ubiquitous presence at major events at the Giddings State School.

Laura, a retired teacher, and Lynn, an accountant, were already working with Christian prison ministries for adults when Laura, speaking with a fellow volunteer, learned about the mentoring program at Giddings.

She walked from that conversation directly to Lynn in another room and “told him what we’d be doing,” she recalls with a laugh. They both laugh at that, revealing the infectious good humor that has brightened countless family days and other occasions at the Giddings campus, where in normal times, the Fletchers could be found surrounded by young people, often snuggled in over plates of barbecue and games of UNO.

“They’re very committed and they’re such a light, they just radiate,” said Janet Sheelar, a staff member with the Community Relations office at Giddings.

Lately, with visitation and in-person mentoring suspended during the coronavirus pandemic, the Fletchers, like all TJJD mentors and volunteers, have been keeping in contact with youth via FaceTime chats and by writing letters.

But for the past eight years, the Fletchers drove to Giddings every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon to meet with the youth in their mentoring groups. They were religious, no pun intended, about making that two-hour drive twice a week, with additional 240-mile periodic roundtrip treks to see particular youth at special events, such as graduations, football games and track meets.

“We celebrate everything they do right,” says Laura. “If they get a GED or diploma or they stay in a program, or do a stage change, or make AB honor roll, we celebrate it. Just like we would for our own kids.”

A youth who’s marked an accomplishment may get to choose the food for their next mentor meeting, which the Fletchers would begin with a family style meal. At the least, the Fletchers would bring or send a congratulatory card.

They keep up with the dozen or so kids in their present mentoring circles, and dozens of others who’ve left Giddings for transitional or halfway homes, jobs and college.

Over the years, the number of youth they had mentored just kept growing.

“We stopped counting at 300,” says Lynn, asked for a cumulative tally. Some days, he says, the couple will get a call from as many as four former TJJD youth, just checking in or reporting some news.

The day before we interviewed, the couple had heard from a youth they worked with years before. He was reporting a poignant milestone and wanted the Fletchers to know first: He had made parole.

Everyone wants to be heard

At their mentoring sessions, called “circles,” the Fletchers would meet with a group of six youth in the chapel, where the soaring ceilings and religious motifs set a tone of seriousness. The meetings began with a family style meal and included a short devotion and discussion of a Bible verse. For most of the time, however, the Fletchers and teens just talked. “We do something called ‘Highs and Lows,’ where they talk about the best and worst parts of their week,” Laura says. “It’s how we’ve always talked to our own kids.”

Lynn and Laura also take each youth aside individually, to make sure they have an opportunity to say what’s on their mind.

“They want somebody just to talk to, somebody to listen to them, and I think for many of them, they haven’t had that,” she said. “It could be because of trust.”

The kids, she said, can be precocious and more than one has told her point blank, “I have trust issues.” Laura laughs lightly, again.

It doesn’t happen immediately, she says, but over the course of building their relationship, the boys open up and express a full range of emotions and even “are able to cry in front of us.”

On the flip side, Laura said, some of the youth seem genuinely puzzled by their behavior and motivations. Over the years, she’s heard several utter some variant of, “I wake up in the morning and I’m angry, but I don’t know why.”

But whether they can identify their root issues, all the kids benefit from being heard.

“A lot of these kids look very stoic. They have a wall up,” Laura says. “But that is not the real person. And when they let the wall down, you can see that precious person inside, and everybody wants to be seen.”

Laura Fletcher understands emotional walls. She grew up in Galveston in households disrupted by addiction and experienced abuse and neglect as a child.

“I grew up feeling unloved and unloving and invisible,” she says. She managed to move beyond that unsupportive environment to attend Texas A & M, where Lynn also got his degree.

But some experiences you don’t forget. So when Laura meets kids at Giddings who seem unloving and uncaring, she sees them as young people who haven’t felt loved.

“I think when people are loved they can become loving. Some of these kids who don’t seem loving at the beginning, they are still capable of it.”

The Fletchers are special people and Laura’s past, in particular, gives her unique insight into what many of the youth are feeling, says Anita Schwartz, who as Community Relations Coordinator for Giddings State School oversees the mentoring program.

“It’s almost like a peer-to-peer relationship, and those kind of relationships are very therapeutic,” Schwartz said. The Fletchers, like the many other successful mentors who volunteer at Giddings, understand that the listening is key.

They don’t listen to “make a response” or to “fix it or find a solution,” Schwartz said. “They just listen, and I think she’s really, really good at that.”

Lynn’s childhood was the mirror opposite of Laura’s. He comes from a warm and supportive family background. His special touch with the youth: An unflappable style and irrepressible sense of humor.

He recounts how one young man, an aspiring musician, expressed frank disgust for drawing Lynn as a mentor when he discovered Fletcher could teach him neither the guitar nor the drums.

“Then why did I get you as a mentor?” the youth sputtered at their first meeting.   

“‘What instruments do you play?’ is often an opening question, Lynn explains.  “I tell them, ‘None!’ he says brightly. And “when they ask me if I can teach them to play the guitar, I tell them I’ll teach them after I learn.”

Invariably, Lynn’s lack of musical skill is soon forgotten as the young men nearly always fall into a close relationship with both Fletchers.

Of course, there are occasional youth who prove difficult to reach, Laura says, and the Fletchers realize they must be discerning when working with the boys. Some have tales to tell and some are inveterate rule benders.

“We hold them accountable,” she said. “We’re not mushy.”

Finding a better path

The vast majority of the young people they’ve worked with, they say, earnestly want to improve.
It may not be apparent at first because they are mistrusting and can be emotional or withdrawn -- their way of protecting themselves, coming, as so many do, from a background of trauma, poverty or family disruptions.

“I would say every single one of the kids we’ve worked with has a trauma background. With some it’s horrific. You wonder how they’re still standing. To watch them learn how to trust somebody and to communicate with their words and not their fists, it’s great to watch,” Laura says.

As parents and foster parents, the Fletchers learned long ago that trust, love and consistency are key to nudging young people toward positive changes.

So they stay committed -- 50,000 miles a year on their Hyundai and thousands of hours mentoring committed.

This is their purpose and “God calls us to do it,” Lynn says.

Staying consistent is why, in addition to the fun events, the Fletchers also turn up at court hearings, ARD (special education) meetings and other interventions, and sometimes write letters to judges and parole panels. These less visible appearances are their way of doing every last thing they can to support a youth they’re mentoring and signaling they’ll always be there.

The Fletchers, who are both laughing, are seated at a long cafeteria table, where kids they mentor are playing games. They are smiling. The youth images have been blurred to protect their identity.Sometimes, the child they’re rooting for will succeed brilliantly. They mention one youth who is in college, living independently, with a good future ahead; another just recently got a job in a warehouse and has a supportive girlfriend.

One youth they keep up with is a “smart and charming” young man who participates in a 12-step program. He’s working to beat the addiction that claimed many close family members.  When he was at his family home “he’d call and say, ‘I can’t stay here, everybody’s using’,” Laura said.

He “slipped” for a while, but “he got back up,” she says, and while this period of social distancing has been difficult, he is keeping afloat. Fingers crossed.

Success at Giddings is not always measured as one might in more privileged places: It could mean that a youth advanced one stage on the behavioral ladder or completed a vocational-technical certificate. But these achievements loom large, because they represent a turn away from the destructive path they’d been on.

Sometimes, along with the nurturing, the young people they’ve mentored need reality checks.

One hurdle the Fletchers regularly confront is that the young men, having had contact with gangs or family and friends who’ve gone to prison, have a mythologized image of incarceration.

They stress to these youth that Giddings is “summer camp” by comparison and presents them a chance to avoid going to an adult prison, either for their current sentenced offense or for later charges if they persist on the wrong path.

But 17-year-olds can be hard-headed. Laura tells about one youth who broke their hearts when he stumbled after leaving Giddings.

She remembers embracing this strapping teenager as he departed the campus some four years ago. “I gave him a hug, and he said, ‘That’s the first hug I’ve ever had’. 

He tried, but failed, to stay out of trouble and ended up in prison. They stay in touch and he repeatedly tells the Fletchers to warn the kids still at Giddings to get their lives in order while they’re there.

“He tells me all the time,” Laura says, a hitch in her voice. “ ‘Tell the boys, I waited too long to change, don’t wait too long to change’.”  

Looking back at their Giddings experience, the young men often tell Laura and Lynn how they were helped by the schooling and encouragement they received at Giddings.

But more than any single event or achievement, it’s the relationships they made that seem to have left the biggest imprint.

Laura and Lynn have gleaned this from their interactions with current and former TJJD youth.

“Of all the youth we’ve worked with, only one ever asked us for money,” Laura said. This illustrates to her that for all their big talk about buying expensive things and finding lucrative jobs, what the young men really crave is human connection, and when they find that, they cherish it.

Just last week, the Fletchers received a letter from a youth who’d joined their mentoring group shortly before in-person meetings were suspended. He’d seemed disengaged and they worried at the time that maybe he just didn’t care.

But his letter was long and effusive. He was making progress in his therapy program. He had plans to progress on his “stages.” And he wanted to know how they were doing. 

“I Know you guys are probably bored,” he wrote. (You can feel Laura grinning at that.) “I hope you are staying inside and no one in your family is sick,” he added. More details about campus events, and then he closed:  

“Thank you for taking me into your heart and accepting me as your child.”

(If you are interested in becoming a TJJD mentor, please see the story "How to become a mentor" published here on our website.)