By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications

WhartonCo jdin field trip movies smTJJD and juvenile probation departments in counties across the state rely on partnerships within our communities to help better serve their young people. In the case of the Wharton County Juvenile Probation Department, a key partnership has been with the Just Do It Now, Inc. organization and their Yes We Can Intervention and Prevention Program.

“Just Do It Now is a faith-based organization and I think that’s one of the key factors in making a difference in these youths’ lives,” said James Perez, executive director of Just Do It Now. “We try to take a Christian approach to teaching the kids. We want these kids thinking in the right direction, thinking about college, about life after high school, but also teaching them the day-to-day living habits and treating each other with love and respect. We talk to our staff quite a bit about it.”

“We can send food home with the kids,” Perez continued. “We have clothing drives and jacket drives. We try to make sure these kids have these essential needs in their homes. I think they’ve grown to appreciate the extent to which we go to make sure they know that we really are trying to set them up for success.”

Just Do It Now, a 501(c)3 non-profit, was founded in 2000 by the late Greg Baines. Baines was a local businessman and ordained minister who had overcome his own battles with substance abuse and saw Just Do It Now as a means of bringing the community together to tackle challenges they and their children faced.

The non-profit group's acclaimed Yes We Can afterschool and summer program serves kids ages six to 18. It provides programs for the youths’ education, a healthy lifestyle, mental health, as well as a variety of teen programs that include preventing teen pregnancies and STDs. All these things impact the youths’ lives on a daily basis, said Barbara Fortenberry, assistant director of Just Do It Now. “We provide food for them, we provide mentorship and tutoring for them, as well as individual and specialized programs geared towards helping educate them toward healthy lifestyles.”

Yes We Can has been funded by a TJJD state of Texas grant of $168,217 annually since 2012, and is completely free and available to any child in the community, though the program focuses on low-income neighborhoods. The program serves between 45-50 youth daily in the summer to 80-100 daily during the school year. Roughly 175 kids are being tracked in the program on average.

WhartonCounty jdin reading program smBillie Jean Bram, chief juvenile probation officer for the Wharton County Juvenile Probation Department, first approached Just Do It Now, and it was the first grant she applied for when she became chief. “I thought maybe I’d get some gas money for this program because I think it’s really worthwhile what they’re doing there.”

Bram wound up getting more than just enough to cover some gas money for the program and this led to the effective operation that Yes We Can has become.

“We were already operating an afterschool program and Ms. Bram offered funding for us to specialize in certain areas to provide more programs to more kids in the community and we could help them learn to make better decisions that could help keep them from entering the juvenile justice system,” Fortenberry said.

There were also practical advantages to what Yes We Can was doing for the community. “What really made me think this program was worth fighting for is the fact that if you figure out how much money you were actually spending per child you’d realize it’s not that much money,” Bram said. “If we have to put a kid in a detention facility it’s $125-150 a day. Long-term, this program is a whole lot cheaper.”

Perez said that while Yes We Can offers so many programs and activities, the time the kids spend at the center allows for more flexibility than the average school day. “We’re not in a school environment where it might be a rigid forty-five minutes for each class,” he said. “We have these kids for a few hours, we eat with them, we play with them, and we work with them on their schoolwork. Thanks to the TJJD grant, we’re able to transport them home from the center to wherever they live. We’re able to bond with the kids.”

Yes We Can keeps kids busy and out of trouble

Instructing the young people on manners and basic courtesies has been a cornerstone of the program. Insults, bad language, and even the phrase “shut up” are discouraged while less disrespectful alternatives are introduced. “A big component was that they wanted to teach things like social skills, how to interact in public, and how to be respectful,” Bram said. “There are generations of parents who weren’t parented, they never learned the difference between an inside voice and an outside voice and to say ‘yes, sir’ or ‘yes, ma’am’. We’re trying to show them that courtesy is very important. That was one of the first things that had an impact on me when I got involved with the program, because I thought that it could be something that would really help keep kids from coming into my (juvenile justice) system.”

That thought has proven correct, too. Bram estimates that since 2012 there have been fewer than 20 kids who’ve come from Yes We Can that have entered the juvenile probation system.

“The program is centralized in the lower-income side of town,” Bram said. “It has more high-risk families and kids. The program is within walking distance for many of them, but if they need to be picked up or taken home that’s done for them.”

“The kids like to go there because they get fed, for one thing,” Bram continued. “That’s a big thing. There’s always somebody there that actually cares for them, they help them with their homework, and in the summer months they play games with them.”

Not only does Yes We Can offer high-quality programs to the children, but Perez credits the staff at Just Do It Now for playing a large role in the lives of the kids. “We’re all very involved in our community in various ways and the kids know that they can depend on us,” he said. “They can come to us with any of the needs that they may have and we do whatever we can to make sure those needs are met.”

As for incentivizing the youths to visit, it doesn’t get more basic than a healthy meal. “For a lot of kids, the meal they have at the center may be the last meal they have for the day, so we make sure to provide a high-quality meal for them every day,” Fortenberry said. “They know there’ll be food; they know they’re going to be treated with love and respect; they know that there’ll be members of the staff that have been here for a long time, that they can rely on us, both here and outside the center. We show up for them and they know they can depend on us.”    

During the summer, the program has functions and activities going on throughout the day. During the school year, the students can take the bus to school from the center and back again after school. Around 6 pm they’ll be bussed home from the center.

“Over the summer, on spring break, and even the Christmas break, we try to offer as many field trips and activities as we can,” Perez said. “We want to keep them occupied and involved and to keep fostering the bond that we’ve developed with these kids.”

Fostering bigger dreams

WhartonCo JDIN playtime“The saddest part about working with at-risk communities is that they don’t have dreams, they don’t know what to dream of," Perez continued. "When you’re worried about just feeding yourself you can’t possibly be thinking about a career and having a house – you’re too worried about your basic essential needs. We try to help the kids get past those fears and insecurities about food, shelter, and clothing and allow them to grow and develop psychologically and spiritually through these bonding events and activities that we have.”

"We want to inspire them to dream big."

During the summer, Perez said, “we go to the movies once a week, we go to the local swimming pool, we get tickets to Astros games, we really try to foster the bonds we’re developing with these kids. We try to inspire them.”  

To that end, the organization is involved with athletic programs such as basketball, football, and track. They provide transportation to and from these games and competitions. Sometimes, they’re able to do even more and combine inspiration as well as athletic activities. “Our Athletic Director was able to take a group of boys from our basketball program to go to Louisiana Tech and spend a few days in the dorms where they got to have basketball practice and life leadership training,” Perez said. “Spending time on a college campus shows these young people what’s possible for them.”        

Best of all, the Yes We Can program is there for as long as a youth wants to be a part of it.

“There’s no exit from this program,” Fortenberry said. “You stay with it until you age out, and the goal is for you to become a mentor in the program with the younger kids as you get older to show them that ‘Hey, this can work for you’ and we’ve been able to do that.”

Over the years, the community has been hit hard by natural disasters. “We’ve had floods, hurricanes, a lot has happened here,” Bram said, “and every time Just Do It Now and the Yes We Can program has been the stable thing in the community for these kids.”

The program has evolved. “Over the years we’re seeing more community support and as the needs of the kids have changed, we’ve had to change with them,” Fortenberry said.

This comes in a variety of ways that includes food, clothing, housing, helping the kids get scholarships and helping family members find jobs.

“It’s worked out really well,” Bram said, “and I continue to partner with them because I truly believe this program is a benefit to the community.”