By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
When Tanya Rosas worked as an activities director for a nursing home in Marlin, she recruited volunteers of all ages to help engage the residents.
She delighted in matching elderly residents with youthful volunteers. These pairings that reached across the generations just seemed to click, helping the young and old alike feel needed.
When she moved to the Texas Youth Commission as a volunteer coordinator, first to the Marlin Orientation & Assessment Unit, and later to the Mart campus, she noticed the same synergy.
Now, though, the roles were reversed. It was the cadre of older volunteers, mostly retirees or seniors from nearby churches and communities, who were connecting with the youth and lifting their spirits.
“The kids were a long way from home, and they didn’t have a lot of family coming around,” Rosas said. They responded warmly to the older volunteers who turned up to mentor them and organize weekend events and spiritual activities. The volunteers were like surrogate grandparents and the kids were eager for the positive attention.
“I have been very fortunate,” Rosas continued. “I have some volunteers who, when I left the nursing home, they followed me to TYC and became bible study volunteers there, and they continued on to Mart after Marlin shut down (in 2007).”
Rosas, who is retiring at Mart's Community Relations Coordinator on Jan. 31 after nearly 22 years with TYC/TJJD, says she is forever grateful for those many volunteers who stuck with her and turned their focus to helping young people.
“They believed in me, and they believed in the agency, so they followed me to Mart, and it’s been a blessing,” she said. “I didn’t have to recreate anything here. My volunteer base came here with me.”
Reflecting on her years at TJJD, Rosas says the volunteers provided a nurturing atmosphere that coincidentally mirrors the agency’s current focus on trauma-informed care under the Texas Model set of reforms. The Texas Model encourages staff to be authentic, compassionate and connect with the young people to better reach them as they strive to improve their behavior. It emphasizes making connections, and that’s something the volunteers understand intuitively.
The volunteers, especially those who came frequently and stayed over the years, understood they importance of authentic connections, Rosas said; they truly saw great potential in the kids with whom they worked.
Kate Mellina, a volunteer with a faith-based group that serves Mart, said Tanya did a great job of facilitating their work by keeping in close touch and helping brainstorm activity ideas with them.
“She has been so helpful and appreciative of all her volunteers and mentors,” Mellina said. “We have always kept the lines of communication open. We email or call whenever one of us thinks of something we can do for the other, or the youth and staff.
I hope and pray we can get another wonderful volunteer coordinator to fill her big shoes. We will miss her.”
Rosas sees a robust corps of volunteers as vital to a healthy juvenile justice operation, enriching the social environment and bringing songs, games, spiritual guidance and sometimes, just an attentive ear.
“The staff looks forward to it as much as the kids do. I can’t tell you how many times our volunteers have prayed with staff when something not going well in their life,” Rosas said.
Volunteers help the agency strengthen ties to the community and show the youth how they can contribute to the wider world, Rosas said.
Her office oversaw projects in which the youth used donated fabric to make chew toys for dogs in the local shelter and finished lap blankets to donate to veterans at the VA medical centers in Waco and Temple.
In one memorable project, the boys in metal shop constructed an outdoor bench that the Mart campus donated to Read’s, a local grocery and loyal supporter of TJJD that has contributed food donations to countless events.
“Our boys did that and they gave that to the town. It just makes you feel good to know that our kids helped give back to the community, because Reads is an important sponsor for us,” Rosas said. “We always make sure we thank our businesses that help us.”
Rosas, who has two daughters and a stepson and 10 grandchildren, plans to spend time with family and continue volunteering herself.
In the past, she’s volunteered with 4-H clubs, Boys and Girls Clubs and the Police Alumni Association. She has served on the board of the Waco area Retired Seniors Volunteer Program since 1988 and was nominated several years ago by the agency as a Texas Woman in Government.
She also served for nearly 20 years as the Texas State Employee Charitable Campaign chair at her TYC/TJJD campuses. She filled that role to honor the memories of her grandmother, mother, father and husband, who were all lost to cancer.
(Photos: Tanya Rosas with her cake at a reception at Mart; Tanya accepts a plaque for service from Mart Supt. Michelle Havranek and Asst. Supt. Antonio Houston.)