By TJJD Communications

This first week of May is National Correctional Officers Week, when we salute TJJD’s hard-working direct care professionals.

At the top of that list are our Youth Development Coaches, who manage the day-to-day activities of the young men and women entrusted to our care. Our coaches are not “correctional officers” in the common sense but serve as mentors and role models, guiding youth toward a brighter future.

They are joined on our campuses across Texas by a virtual village of direct care staff -- case managers, health treatment providers, recreation coaches, teachers, campus supervisors, managers, and security officers. These professionals work diligently each day to assess the risks facing TJJD youth, meet their needs and help them heal. They coordinate with each other, leverage their areas of expertise, and set the tone and pace of change. They train, teach, demonstrate, cajole, commend, challenge, applaud, reminisce, and rejoice with and for the youth. These jobs are not for everyone, that’s the truth! But they’re awesome for the right person.

These days all TJJD professionals are trained in the Texas Model, a broad, science-based program of trauma-informed methods and strategies that help youth better manage their emotions, resolve conflicts peacefully, set goals and act in their own best interests, equipping them to return safely to their communities. 

As we commemorate this week, we thought you'd want to meet some of these amazing TJJD staff member. Scroll below to read their stories in their own words. And also, please join us in thanking ALL of our staff, at all levels and all campuses, who show up 24/7 for the young people who depend upon them.

Stephanie Johnson, Senior Youth Development Coach, McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, Mart

co week johnson sI started working for TJJD in February 2011. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t join the agency earlier in my career! Before I started with TJJD, I worked at a day care, but my best training came from the fact that I have fifteen siblings, eight of whom are boys! I have had the chance to make great relationships with the staff, and I love engaging with the youth. My favorite activity with them is trivia because it’s fun and educational. They love it as well!

I currently work on the Incentive Dorm, which allows the youth to earn points for their behavior and for keeping the dorm clean. They can then spend their points on leisure time, playing video games, or snacks. A little bag of Takis or a bowl of spicy noodles brings so much happiness to these kids.

I come to work with an open mind and want to be very teachable when it comes to working with the youth. The Texas Model has taught me to be more patient and try to find the best possible solutions to problems. I’ve learned that not every action requires a reaction. I give ample warnings, “time ins,” and “do-overs” for behavior.

I love to share my own past experience with the youth because I made mistakes when I was younger. I always tell the youth that strong people raise strong kids, and that if they keep working and see me as a positive role model, they will win and be their own success story! 

Jonathan Simpson, Senior Youth Development Coach, Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex, Brownwood 

co week simpson jI was born and raised in Brownwood and initially started at the agency back in 2004, when it was known as TYC (Texas Youth Commission). At the time, both my mother and stepfather were dorm supervisors. In 2008, I took a break and transitioned to the adult side of corrections. I came back in 2019 and worked with the girls in residence for a bit before accepting a Senior Coach position with our boys’ O/A (Orientation and Assessment).

When I first started the agency, the program we were running focused on correcting the behavior right then. Now, with TBRI (Trust-Based Relational Intervention) we still address the issue, but we are more focused on what is causing these types of issues. We concentrate on getting to the core of it and to do that you have to have a trusting relationship with the youth we supervise.

The program requires you to engage in daily activities and programming with our youth and understand where they come from and what different types of trauma they may have encountered. TJJD does a really good job in providing you with the training and materials to understand that there is science behind these issues. Not only has it helped me become a better staffer, but it has also transformed me into a better parent as well.

My favorite playful engagement routine or activity to do with the youth: I like to carry a ball around in my pocket. If I notice a youth that may be struggling or is dysregulated. I use this ball to interact with the youth. I’ll get their attention and bounce them the ball and from there create dialogue. The youth seem to enjoy it.

Definitely the best part of my job is working with our youth. I enjoy engaging with them every day whether it’s shooting a couple of hoops with them, participating in an activity, or just listening to them vent. It can definitely be challenging at times but very rewarding in the end. 

What I wish the public understood about my job is that I really advocate for our youth. They are just like any other teenage kid they just encountered some bumps along the way. Many of them were not given the opportunities that you or I had. Yeah, they messed up but once you get the chance to understand where they come from, they are normal teenage kids. They have dreams just like mine do, and I hope with the time I put in that I can guide them towards the path to success.

My self-care routine is just spending time with my wife and kids. We love to hunt and fish and take advantage of it every chance we get. Having 3 teenagers and 7-year-old keeps us busy and entertained. Afternoons after work are usually filled with practices or games. Watching them grow and be successful is always a happy time for us!

Eric Smith, Parole Officer, D/FW and North Region

co week smith eI got started in juvenile justice, starting at TYC/TJJD in 1995, because at one time, I was that youth in trouble. I was homeless, defiant, broken. So I always tell the families I work with to “keep going, keep pushing to find out what’s on the other side, to not give up!”

Fortunately, I did not spend a lot of time homeless, because I had some incredible friends in high school, and I got unofficially adopted by some amazing families of my best friends. I developed a passion for helping youth and was able to go on to seminary and worked as a youth pastor. Later, I took criminal justice classes and received my degree in criminal justice.

My favorite strategy to use on the job is getting parents involved and just having a heart-to-heart talk. I like to walk them through some new skills. It might be how to introduce yourself, because maybe due to their background, they’re a bit socially awkward. It can be skills like that they may have missed out on learning.

I enjoy teaching life skills and just getting the family and youth engaged and involved and interacting with one another, family to child, mom, dad, whomever the guardian is – because maybe they didn’t get to talk that much before. I help get the parents involved with the interview sessions we have with the youth, and I love the one-on-ones with the youth, because that’s when they open up and tell the honest truth about their struggles, and I can help them with coping skills and ways to overcome their struggles.

The best part of my job is engaging with the youth. When they’re off parole, many of them will call back regarding their success and even to see how I’m doing. It always feels good to know you impacted their life for however short of time they were with you.

I do wish the public understood these young people better. They are people. We were once in their shoes, maybe not delinquent, but we were young and impulsive, and a little patience and grace given to them goes a long way. When they see that you’re working with them, they’ll work hard for you.

Because of the shift in life that’s happened during these last two pandemic years, I do see self-care as imperative. That is something I’m mindful of. My wife and I are empty nesters now. We have five grown children and four grandchildren, but we still get up at 5 a.m. to pray, meditate and work out. So, we’re both ready for the day and that helps immensely.

Before the pandemic we went to the gym together. But now I have added gym equipment to my garage, so we have an elliptical, stationary bike, a Peloton, treadmill, and free weights. We go together to our home gym and work out. It’s a whole gym vibe in there!

Friday evenings, we end our week in the backyard under the pergola or we go out to dinner. Fridays are for unwinding, having “heart” talks and being intentional regarding what’s on each other’s heart, and enjoying one another and staying connected.

Canisha Loving, Youth Safety Manager, Giddings State School

Canisha Loving plays basketball with a youthI initially started working in juvenile Justice as a steppingstone after graduating from Sam Houston State University in May 2017 with a bachelor’s of science in Criminal Justice. I began enjoying this line of work and felt that working with young people was a good fit for me career-wise. I currently attend Lamar University and I am working on my master’s in Business Administration.

The best part of the job is being able to engage and build rapport with a wide variety of youth. I also enjoy seeing the change in youth and being a part of their rehabilitation​ over time.  It’s always rewarding to hear success stories from youth that have been in the facility for an extended time. 

My favorite activities with the youth are playing dodgeball and basketball. It's exciting to see how engaged youth are when playing these games, and it brings out the competitive side from both staff and the kids. 

Since I started here the agency has adopted TBRI (Trust-based Relational Intervention). Through TBRI we are able to build trusting relationships and meet the basic needs of youth who experience adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The basic needs include providing a stable environment, emotional support during emergencies, and building healthy rapport to allow youth to feel empowered.

TBRI also gives staff a variety of tools that can be used to handle multiple situations in a calmer and more effective way. This helps staff to build trust and connections with youth. Building healthy connections can consist of allowing youth a walk-and-talk with staff members when they become overwhelmed, providing support during Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT) groups/nurture groups, and offering “re-dos” to show youth that there are other ways to handle and cope with situations.

Everyone makes mistakes that they should not be judged for.  It's our responsibility to do our best to ensure youth do not make the same mistakes repeatedly. 

In my spare time outside of work, I enjoy spending time at Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin and riding the 10-mile bike trail along the lake. I also enjoy spending time with family and binge-watching random shows on Netflix.  

Cassandra Reyes, Senior Youth Development Coach, Gainesville State School

co week reyes cI joined TJJD nearly fifteen years ago. I had been working as a supervisor at AT&T for more than a decade, but I made a career change. My mom was working for the agency, and she always said it was a joy to work with the youth and the staff.

There have been a lot of changes over the years, and the Texas Model has given us the opportunity to make positive lasting connections with the youth--connections that have the power to change lives. The Texas Model is a trauma-based approach, which allows us to focus on overcoming the problem with the youth, not simply discipline the behavior. 

If the youth do not understand what caused the behavior, they will struggle to overcome it. I have the opportunity to watch them improve existing skills, build positive relations, and become productive citizens. While here at TJJD, they have the opportunity to attend school and earn a high school diploma or a GED.

I enjoy assisting with football, basketball, and track. Being able to watch the youth participate in extracurricular activities reminds me so much of my own boys and is very exciting.

Daniel Guerrero Jr., Youth Development Coach, Evins Regional Juvenile Center, Edinburg

co week guerro dAfter graduating from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley with a bachelor’s in kinesiology and a minor in criminology, I knew I wanted to work with youth. When a position became available at Evins Regional Juvenile Center (ERJC), I felt that this was an opportunity to be a positive role model and mentor youth.

I have been employed at Evins for two years as a Youth Development Coach. While working in the dorm, I was responsible for engaging the youth in positive, rehabilitative activities.

In the dorm, all youth would perform their daily chores after playing games that included bowling, bean bag toss, and weightlifting exercises overseen by the recreation department. The youth enjoyed bowling the most, playing in the day area and interacting in a positive way with each other. Team leaders and case managers would participate as they got a chance to.

What I like about TJJD’s Texas Model program is that it provides youth the opportunity to learn and understand their emotions and allows me to interact with young adults in ways that balance structure and nurture.

Eventually, I transitioned to work as a coach in the infirmary, where I help with the coordination of care by bringing youth to the infirmary for med-pass, sick calls, and clinics. However, the best part of this job is the ability to interact with my colleagues, knowing that we are on a mission to make a difference in many lives.

On my days off, I like to spend time in the outdoors, whether is at the ranch or hunting. I like to spend time with my family and nephew, treating them to Texas BBQ.