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By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications

They aspire to be barbers, oil field technicians and game wardens. Some want jobs to help them pay their way through college. Some want to begin careers right away and have visions of owning a landscaping or auto repair business.

But before these dreams can come to pass, they must learn the nitty gritty details of applying for a job, navigating an interview, composing a resume and portraying themselves on LinkedIn.

Youth looks at a computer while a coach sits nearby ready to assist.For those aspiring to college, there’s also the task of filling out the formidable Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA).

There’s a lot to grasp, and so, once a week, several young men at TJJD’s Ayres Halfway House in San Antonio sit down with volunteers and staff who advise them, polish their job applications and talk about how to talk in interviews.

The work begins almost as soon as a TJJD youth arrives at the halfway house, where staffers are always on the look out for ways to help the young men get ready for the transition back home.

“We have the end in mind from the beginning,” said Maryann Gooley, TJJD Workforce Development Specialist V, who assists kids at Ayres and youth on TJJD parole across the Southern portion of the state, from El Paso and Midland to Killeen to Corpus Christi.

Getting the teens ready for work before they leave TJJD is crucial to their long-term success.

“There’s a really a brief window when the kids get out of whatever facility they’re in and they get home to their guardians,” Gooley said. “It’s about two weeks. If we don’t get to them (with a work plan) within those first two weeks, we can lose them, because there’re so many distractions out there. There are home issues and self-esteem issues and there may be other issues...”

In addition to Gooley, the Ayres workforce team includes the Health and Human Services Specialist, Community & Family Relations Coordinator Patty Garza and college interns who are studying to become social workers. The team meets virtually every week and gets help from experts at Alamo Workforce Solutions and the Texas Workforce Commission. While helping youth with work skills has always been a focus of TJJD halfway houses, this formalized workforce group, which began weekly meetings in August, represents a recent redoubling of effort.

The colleges interns this semester are Desmond Jackson, who’s working on a master’s in social work at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Kinsey Andecover, who’s finishing up a master’s in social work at Texas State University in San Marcos. They are an integral part of the team, and provide continuity for the youth, especially when staff are pulled away for other duties, said Garza, who oversees the intern program at Ayres.

Gooley, Jackson and Andecover say they enjoy helping the youth chart a course that will carry them into adulthood.

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“Typically, I like to do a meet-and-greet and tell them about myself and get them to open up. Then we catalog hard and soft skills,” Jackson said.

After inventorying their interests and skills, he and Andecover survey places where the young men can finish school credits if needed, teach them how LinkedIn and other online employment services work, hone resumes and explore job openings.

It’s exciting but detailed work that can get quite granular. They might, say, help a youth create a new more professional email address – one that no longer says “heybaby1234” or “hotmess,” Gooley says with a chuckle.

They talk about how to address an employer and work through workplace disagreements and talk on the telephone in a professional way.

Andecover shows the boys how to ferret out job openings by first Googling workplaces within a five-to-seven mile radius of their home communities.

Guided by staff the college interns work one-on-one with the youth. They meet virtually and in person as pandemic protocols have allowed. They pour energy into this effort, because, like Gooley, they know that easing the transition home lays the foundation for success. If a youth can quickly begin contributing to their family’s household budget or can, if needed, support themself they will feel confident and secure, they said.

The money and the emotional lift are both important and help a youth to move forward and not revert to problematic behaviors, Andecover said.

“One of our main objectives is to at least set them up with some sort of interview or something, so when they get released into the community, it’s a fresh start,” Jackson said.

Recently, the team helped a young man secure a job at Wendy’s, where he interviewed the day after getting home.
That was a big win, because he didn’t have to miss a beat, Jackson said. “He was like, ‘this is awesome!’ and he thanked me, and I reminded him that he did the work.”

A youth looks at a computer screen while he participates in a Zoom meeting with the jobs team at Ayres Halfway House.Restaurants and lawn services provide good entry level jobs for the youth. But many places won’t accept kids with a juvenile justice background. Recently, Andecover polled about 10 automotive service places with private owners who set their own employment policies. About half said they would consider a former TJJD youth, but half told her they would not.

The issue of a youth’s background will come up for determinant sentenced offenders, because they have to answer “yes” when asked on an application if they’ve been convicted of a felony.

But even TJJD youth who were committed with “non-determinant” sentences (the majority) and can honestly say they’ve not been “convicted” of a crime, must prepare to address their background, Gooley said. Their past may simply be evident, because of their recent address at a halfway house, their patchy work and school history, the need for parole checks or their own decision to disclose it. And so, the workforce team counsels all youth on how to address their history with employers.

Gooley teaches them to tell their story using what she calls a “sandwich” or “hamburger” technique. The first part, the bun base, is their history and precursor events, including family and financial hardships that contributed to their getting into trouble. Next, they get to the center of the matter: their offense. They don’t have to give all the details, but they should tell it straight, take responsibility and express their honest regret, Gooley counsels.

Then they move on to explain how they’ve changed and evolved.

“They talk about their personal growth and things they’ve achieved and how they’ve addressed those barriers they’ve had,” Gooley said “They might say they’ve learned to say ‘no’ to getting involved with negative activities.”

During this third part, youth might also explain how TJJD’s Texas Model and Trust-Based Relational Intervention programs have helped them understand how to regulate their emotions, enabling them to resist negative influences, she said. They can point to how they’ve learned to recognize and overcome “thinking errors” that may have made them susceptible to peer pressure.

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Knowing that the youth have limited options – however temporary -- is one of the most agonizing aspects of their volunteer work, said Jackson, who plans to work at Ayres through next spring. Andecover will finish in December when she completes her master’s.

These difficult conversations are necessary because some of the youth start the workforce program thinking they’ll work at certain customer-facing businesses or join the military, only to realize that their immediate past may be a barrier, Andecover said.

“We have a conversation about the limitations, based on what they’ve done in the past,” Desmond said. “Then we talk about turning that negative into a positive.”

On a more positive note, the youth often don’t realize how many legitimate job skills they’ve notched even in their teens.

In brainstorming over their resumes, “that’s when we learn they’ve worked on lawns and on vehicles” or they may have kitchen skills, learned at home or TJJD, Andecover said. Some have helped in family businesses and have capabilities that will translate well to the job market.

As they think about it “they remember that they have a certification they got here (at TJJD) on landscaping,” Desmond said, “and we tell them, ‘That’s important!’.”

A youth looks at a computer screen as he participates in a Zoom meeting with workforce experts.Andecover and Jackson also help the young men see how they’ve demonstrated personal qualities employers look for, like industriousness and teamwork, while in school, at TJJD or working on community service projects.

They’re also able to reinforce with the young men that they have a chorus of people cheering them on, from the Ayres workforce team to the representatives from the Texas Workforce Solutions and the YES (Youth Empowerment Services) program that provides health resources to families with special needs.

Andecover and a TJJD parole officer are working this month with yet another resource, Texas CAN Academy, to help a youth get enrolled in classes. “I didn’t realize how many credit recovery places there are. There are so many available and it can make a big difference for the youth,” she said.

Another program that makes a big difference is the federally funded Work Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), available across Texas, which matches kids to jobs for a trial period, said Gooley, who’s worked at TJJD since 2002, the last four years as the workforce expert. Participating employers get federal funding to provide youth with early job experience, at least six weeks. And if they do well, a youth may get hired permanently.

As for those reluctant employers. Sometimes the workforce team can diffuse their concerns and get them to try out a TJJD youth who has shown they’ve grown socially and personally during their commitment, Gooley said. They will point out that a youth may have worked hard to complete a GED, earn community service hours and build job skills while at TJJD.

Gooley has asked prospective employers to remember that teens can change rapidly. “If you make mistake at 13 and now you’re 18,” she said, “how much growth and change has happened in that time?”

Sometimes, even military recruiters will take a second look at a striving TJJD youth, she said. It depends on the circumstances. If a youth has shown personal growth and has computer skills, that may open a door, she said.

“We’re trying to diminish their barriers (to employment) and diminish their (the youth’s) frustration and help them get hopeful,” Gooley said, “because I see a lot of despair and low self-esteem among our youth and that has fed into the situation they’re at.”

Before the young men depart Ayres House, whether or not they’ve worked with the student mentors, the workforce team sends them home with a “Community Connections” handout.

This document, tailored just for them, lists resources in their home community such as food pantries, places to visit and community events where they might connect with others in positive ways. The college interns collect this information, making this last bit of guidance possible, said Garza.

“It is a huge benefit for our youth to have this assistance preparing for the community re-entry,” she said. “Youth often leave the halfway house nervous, but excited to get back in the communities and start a new life. Sadly, barriers present themselves quickly. They are able to overcome these if they have tangible items in place such as a resume and connection with workforce programming in their community, which we link them to as part of these sessions.”

(Photos: Youth participate in online sessions with members of the Ayres House workforce team and other experts in the field.)