By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
After working several years in case management at TJJD’s Ron Jackson campus, Sheri Coutee knew that many of the youth had multiple needs. They needed educational help and behavioral therapies and, in some cases, assistance working through family issues.
But they also needed some basics that the system was not necessarily geared to provide.
That realization came home to her about three years ago when she accompanied a newly released youth back to her family residence.
She and the young woman arrived at the family’s home just before dinner. “Her mother was giving the siblings supper and she’d given them cereal,” Coutee recalled. “There were three younger siblings and everyone was having cereal – with no milk.”
Even though she’d seen dire situations in her years at TJJD, this image stuck with her.
“A lot of these kids come from poor families and when we send them back, that family has to figure out how to feed them and clothe them.
“That weighed heavily on me,” Coutee said.
The Ron Jackson community and Brownwood volunteers had been helping. Like other campuses within TJJD, they operated a clothing closet to ease a youth’s transition home. But it was limited. The kids were restricted to just a couple articles of clothing comprising one outfit.
When a retirement opened up the position running the campus clothing closet, Coutee seized the opportunity. She’d been observing for years and knew that the community would help her expand and improve this much-needed service.
With the help of generous Ron Jackson employees and the Community Resource Council, Coutee completed that refresh this summer. The clothing closet is now bigger than ever and offers more personal and food items than before.
“I wanted to provide more clothes, adding bras and panties and hygiene items and non-perishable foods, like peanut butter and mac-and-cheese, things they can take home and they don’t have to worry about going to bed hungry.”
The expanded program recognizes that when a kid returns home, the family may have to stretch to accommodate them. These teens have likely outgrown their old clothes and as happy as the family may be to have them back, their arrival can be a financial jolt. And for many, the pandemic has worsened the economic strain.
Coutee’s call for more donations during the pandemic proved to be no problem. The Ron Jackson volunteers “have been amazing,” she said. They’ve sent armfuls of gently used clothing in multiple sizes, and their cash contributions have covered the cost to buy new packages of underclothes, shampoos, cleansers, hair ties, women’s hygiene and grocery items.
Now the girls are not restricted to one top and one pair of pants. They can take several items to wear, which caseworkers collect and send in a box or a duffle bag when the teens head home.
“The only limit we have is for personal items. You get one chapstick, one face wash, one shampoo, stuff like that,” Coutee said. “But the clothing racks, we let them get shirts, jackets, pants, shoes. We have basketball and boxer-style shorts -- all different sorts of clothing.”
The young women are delighted to see that they can pick whatever style fits them, be it preppy or athletic. Thanks to contributions from the community and also from TJJD staffers, the clothing closet, set up in a corner room near the campus gym, offers solid sartorial variety.
“By reaching out to the community, our clothing closet has grown,” said Coutee, who now works as the campus safety manager.
“The hardest, toughest kiddo, when it’s time for them to go in there, they’re so grateful, and there’s no strings attached. Some of them, they get overwhelmed. They don’t know where to start, they don’t even know what size they are. They slip into a bathroom to try on the clothes and they come out and ask what things look like.”
This week, a young woman who’d just filled her box, lofted it in the air as she left the building, shouting, “To a new beginning!”
In addition to helping a child get back on their game, Coutee said the donations send a message home to the family that TJJD supports their child’s transition to the community.
Coutee’s plans for the program are not quite complete. She hopes to extend the donations to include baby wear and a tot toy that can be sent home with the girls who are mothers and reuniting with their children.
She knows the continued support of volunteers will be key and she recently sent a thank you to the council for their good work stocking the clothing closet.
“Some people make choices that change lives! Thank you for being those people,” she wrote. “Your donations will help our students return to their families and communities ready for success.”
(Anyone wishing to donate new or gently used clothing can deliver it to the gatehouse at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex, 611 FM 3254, Brownwood, TX 76801 or it can be sent by mail to: P.O. Box 1267, Brownwood, TX 76804. A potential donor can call the facility (325-641-4200) and ask for Ms. Coutee or Community Coordinator Kevelle Bailey to get more information about contributing.)