By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
For Lisa McNeil, her retirement has brought a powerful mixture of emotions.
For more than 25 years, the woman nicknamed “Sunshine” by her peers and coworkers has been a part of the juvenile justice system in Texas.
“I’m absolutely excited about retirement but at the same I’m sad,” she said. “This wasn’t an easy decision for me.”
As the Texas Model FIT Leader at the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, McNeil built many professional relationships with fellow members of the staff and meaningful connections with the youth in their care.
She joined TJJD in 1998, back when it was still the Texas Youth Commission (TYC). She started as a juvenile corrections officer at the Marlin Orientation and Assessment Unit before moving on to the McLennan facility, in Mart.
“The job really has changed me,” she said. “I started in my twenties, I was in college, and I didn’t think I was going to be there as long as I have. I’ve always enjoyed working with kids, but it has made me grow as a person, and I’ve learned so much from the kids and learned so much from the staff.”
She says that in the days leading up to her retirement she’s been overwhelmed with the memories and experiences she’s had over her career. Some recent, some long ago, but all of them powerful. “I’ve been thinking how important it is to get some of these kids used to being held accountable,” she said. “There was a young man who had just arrived and he wasn’t used to anyone holding him accountable. He had behavioral issues and when we would try to get him to correct them, he would just stare at me and the other members of the staff.
“After some time had passed and we weren’t making any progress with the youth, we talked to him privately. I asked him if he had an issue with me holding him accountable. He just looked at me. I asked him if he knew why I was trying to get him to improve his behavior. He said he didn’t. I said it’s because I expect the best out of him and I want to see him do well.”
“'I only ask you to do what I can do',” she said. “I asked if we could start fresh, now that he knew this. He smiled–the first time we’d seen him smile–and said 'yes,' and shook my hand.”
“Oftentimes when the kids come to us, they don’t trust adults and we have to set the tone for them to trust us, we have to set the tone for how we interact with them and build rapport with them. Now when I see this youth, he’s friendly, his social skills are much better. It was always about helping him, but holding him accountable (too).”
“We have to be role models, all the time,” she said. “In some ways these kids watch us more than we watch them, and how we act around the kids and how we respond to the kids sets the tone for how they respond to us and interact with others.”
That was just one memory in what has been a flood of them lately.
When asked if she had advice to give someone starting out in this line of work, she said, “Have good intentions, do ethical work, and don’t give up on these kids. I tell them to be a good role model for the kids and learn from their mistakes and their experiences. We all learn from each other.”
“Every day is going to be a different day. Learn from your experiences and your mistakes, learn from the kids’ experiences and mistakes. Continue the course. It will get better.”
Leaving behind a career she has loved and was by all accounts a career at which she excelled is difficult, but she said it was time to move on.
McNeil is most looking forward to spending time with her family, including her grandkids, but she still sees working with young people in her future.
“That’s my passion – I feel like I’m on this Earth to work with kids. I’ll miss working with the staff but what I’ll miss most is working with the kids. I’ve seen the vulnerable sides of a lot of these kids and showing vulnerability isn’t easy for a lot of these kids unless they really connect with you.”
She has nothing but great affection for her coworkers and the people across TJJD who work with the youth every day. “There are many great people that work for this agency,” she said. “They are change agents, they are positive with those kids. There are so many people across this agency that are there to help the kids. So many people that want to see good things happen for these kids.”
“Some of these kids really do make the transformation like butterflies,” she continued. “Not every kid is going to change, but that’s the most beautiful part to see; when a kid comes in hard, broken and traumatized, and when they leave, they’ve got better personal skills. Goodness is happening in our facilities, but sometimes that can be hard to see from the outside. I get emotional when I talk about it because I still love the job.”