By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Willie Brown knows that seeing a brawny guy like him playing Barbie dolls would probably draw a chuckle.
But that’s OK with him because he is a man of many of varied passions and commitments. He loves weightlifting and martial arts and adores his children. His youngest is just 8 and delighted when her daddy joins her to play "Barbies".
That’s one facet of Brown’s life. However, as Superintendent of TJJD’s Schaeffer Halfway House, in El Paso, his workdays are focused on serious real-life scenarios as he and the staff make every effort to help TJJD youth learn life skills and prepare to return home.
His love of helping others, especially young people, brought Brown here after serving in the Army and earning degrees at the University of New Mexico (bachelor’s) and Webster University (master’s) at Fort Bliss, Texas.
“Knowing I can work with these kids coming from hard places and help them know they can be better people and be successful, that’s what keeps me here,” he said. It’s especially rewarding, he added, to help kids “flip their mindset,” become more aspirational and realize they have opportunities.
“These kids when they get their GED, it’s like a light switching. For some, that’s a first in their family. That’s a big deal. We’ve had some kids leave out of here and become pretty successful,” he said. He recalled TJJD youth who passed through Schaeffer House and later became journeymen electricians. Another Schaeffer House youth went on to medical school.
Sometimes the youth will check back later with Schaeffer House and say something like “without you helping me I never would have been able to leave here,” Brown said. “That makes me feel good and want to do more.”
Willie Brown is a strong leader, said Jennifer Jones, director of Halfway Houses and Contract Care, and works hard so the youth at Schaeffer can be equipped for success.
“He leads by example and never hesitates to get into the trenches when needed with his team to ensure they are supported and never feel they have to handle a tough situation without extra support,” Jones said.
Before TJJD, Brown worked in corrections in New Mexico. He rose to become director of the Training Academy for the state’s prison system, where he taught corrections trainees that their role was to help the inmates “feel human again and become successful.”
He took that advice with him when he transferred to Texas in 2006 to work with justice-involved youth, first at the Texas Youth Commission (TJJD’s precursor agency) as a top-level JCO and thereafter at Schaeffer House.
Empowering and motivating youth to value themselves is a primary concern at Schaeffer House. Assuring their success helps them and their communities. But Brown knows that begins with an energized, well-trained, and coordinated staff.
“Being able to motivate a team and have everybody focus on the same mission” is so gratifying, he said. To see staff “at the end of the day, know they accomplished something in a positive direction. I think that’s super important.”