Pedro Lozano, Youth Development Coach, Tamayo Halfway House
It has been said that dogs are man’s best friend and that the bond between man and dog can be instantaneous. Where does that connection begin? We gained some insight into that recently when our Tamayo Halfway House youth visited the Humane Society of Harlingen.
When we first asked the kids if they wanted to participate in this community service outing, some were excited and others were not too fond of the idea. “Let’s go to the park!” they exclaimed.
After overcoming that minor resistance, Coaches Lara and Garcia and seven youth proceeded to the Humane Society. People there greeted them as if a prayer had been answered. It would be an understatement to say the staff at the shelter were overwhelmed. They were short staffed and tasks were piling up.
Our Tamayo House boys came to the rescue. That initial resistance? It dissipated quickly as they encountered the animals, mainly dogs. The teens cleaned kennels, swept and mopped floors, and respectfully followed direction given by the animal shelter staff.
The true magic came when the boys walked the dogs outside. There was an immediate supernatural connection that occurred without warning. The kids seemed different, their hard exterior or “front” melted away. Perhaps this was their true selves peeking out. They seemed momentarily liberated and a sense of peace fell over them.
After all the dogs were returned to their kennels, shelter staff thanked the boys for their help, complimented them on the great job they’d done and invited them to return anytime.
The boys headed out with their heads held high and said they wanted to keep up their service to the Humane Society.
We coaches couldn’t be more proud of the teens as we witnessed the life-changing impact of this experience. Dogs can be such great companions. They don’t ask questions. They don’t pass judgment and they are very forgiving. As Josh Billings said, “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than it loves itself.”
For more than a decade, a dedicated group of volunteers from First Baptist Church in Edinburg, called “My Brother’s Keepers,” served TJJD’s Evins campus, mentoring youth and assisting with holiday and faith events.
Their long-term commitment made a big difference in the lives of youth at Evins Regional Juvenile Center, said Community Relations Coordinator Fidel Garcia.
During the past two years, as COVID constrained opportunities for in-person volunteering and mentoring, many of the volunteers with My Brother’s Keepers shifted their focus to working with youth within their own church congregation and supporting adult prisoners in Texas with a mail mentoring program. After taking on these tasks, they decided to suspend their program at Evins.
As we bid farewell, we salute My Brother’s Keepers for their heartfelt service to the youth at TJJD.
“What impressed me the most with this group is that Carolyn and Kenny Faires, the team leaders, always had a lesson during each visit to present to the youth,” Garcia said.
The group “adopted” their first dorm of 24 youth at Evins in 2009, Garcia said, and committed to throwing monthly birthday parties for that group. They gathered several volunteers from their church, naming themselves My Brother’s Keepers, and ensured that every month all youth in their adopted dorm, especially those who had a birthday to celebrate, received home-cooked food, cake, chips, dips, and drinks.
The volunteers feted the youth with music, skits, and read some scripture during their visits.
My Brother’s Keepers always looked out for the needs of the youth and when the kids were ready to leave Evins, the volunteers helped them start with fresh outlook and a fresh outfit. They made sure that any youth leaving the dorm who needed a backpack, shoes or any type of clothing would get these items before they set out.
The team of volunteers also organized “sock drives” at their church to benefit the Community Closet, a room stocked with clothing for Evins’ youth to choose from as they transitioned back into the community.
During Christmas, My Brother’s Keepers gave every boy in their adopted dorm a $15 gift deposit into their trust account. The youth could use that money for extra call time to their family or to buy snacks and other items from the canteen store.
During the Thanksgiving holiday, My Brother’s Keepers rounded up church members to donate toward purchasing turkeys for the boys and their families to eat during visitation.
The group strongly believed that connecting youth to the community is important for rehabilitation, and they invited Evins’ teens who qualified to go off campus to visit their church and join activities there.
For non-Catholic youth who requested to be baptized, My Brother’s Keepers coordinated and taught baptismal classes and arranged for the church elders to visit Evins to perform the baptism.
In addition, members of their group regularly mentored youth one-on-one, approaching this task with energy and dedication.
One young man whom the Faires mentored transferred to the adult correctional system to a unit in Houston, Garcia recalled. But the Faires continued their visits with him, even though the round trip was more than 800 miles.
The couple also kept in contact by mail and phone calls.
“We will miss all their help at TJJD,” Garcia said, “and just wanted to say thank you for the many years of service to Evins.”
Photos by Fidel Garcia: Top, Kenny Faires baptizes a youth; Faires leads a music event; Faires mentors a youth.
Weekly sessions will share Texas Model techniques with families & caregivers
by John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
On the evening of Tuesday, January 11, at 6 pm, a small group of parents and caregivers of teens from across Texas gathered over Zoom. They didn’t know one another, but they all had one thing in common: They wanted to learn the skills that would help their child succeed at home after leaving the care of TJJD.
This virtual gathering was for a session for TJJD’s new Texas Model Training for TJJD Youth Caregivers and Families. The program is a six-week interactive series that offers parents and caregivers a comprehensive approach to understanding the Texas Model and how it assists the progress of youth while they are at a TJJD facility. The goal of the training is to help parents and guardians learn skills and techniques they can use in their day-to-day lives to reduce conflict and ease communication so they can guide and better support their teen.
The training can equip families to address situations and questions that may arise as they welcome their TJJD youth home. Questions such as: What is the best way to respond to a stressful situation? How do you talk about your feelings and impulses in a healthy way? Where do you turn when you are feeling angry or dysregulated?
The sessions include information about Texas Model topics like healthy coping skills, emotional and behavioral regulation, the importance of connection, behavioral correction strategies, and the principles of trauma-informed care. Each session is hosted by a TJJD staff member who has expertise in a certain area. For example, Desiree Cortinas, who is a family enrichment specialist, leads a conversation on “Creating a Trauma Informed Lens.” This is all designed to give family members a better idea of the strategies and skills the youth have been learning during their time spent in the facility. There also is time at the end of each session for questions or to share experiences. Each time a parent, caregiver or family member participates in one of these six sessions, the youth’s file is updated to reflect that.
“As the parents progress through the sessions, staff members may reach out to schedule a virtual meeting with them and their youth to discuss how the Texas Model strategies have impacted them,” says Lisa Broussard, TJJD’s Director of Texas Model Leadership Development. “The youth can share which regulation tools are working and which portions of the Texas Model programming might be helpful upon returning home.”
That first training series ended in mid-February, and as a result of the positive response, the training will be offered four times each year. The current session will begin April 12, 2022 and run through May 17 on Tuesday nights from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm. Later sessions will be held from July 12 through August 16 and from October 11 through November 15. Any parent or caregiver who is interested in attending one of the free training sessions is encouraged to reach out to their case manager to register. Find out more on the Texas Model Training page.
The aim of TJJD is that each youth committed to the agency’s temporary care will leave with a fresh outlook and a sound plan for future success, and that these training sessions will go a long way toward helping the youth meet that goal. This will in turn lead toward safer communities.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications, and Janet Sheelar, Volunteer Coordinator, Giddings State School
Giddings State School has a long, strong tradition of offering athletic programs and academic and vocational classes for its youth, providing a well-rounded high school experience.
But what about after-school hours?
Now, with the opening of its new recreation center, Mustang Alley, Giddings State School has that covered too. The center is packed with all the games you’d find in an arcade, and then some.
There’s an air hockey table, shuffleboard, ping pong, foosball, a pool table, basketball arcade and electronic games, such as Pac Man and Rampage, and three PlayStation gaming centers with chairs. There’s also a large screen HD TV for watching sporting events. How could there not be? This “youth cave” has got it all. (Or will have it all, by the time the flooring is finished in the weeks to come.)
You can imagine the teens’ surprise and delight when Mustang Alley had its grand opening last week. They were thrilled. They rambled around the airy room, jumped right into the miniature basketball, ping pong and arcade games. All the dorms got to visit, in turn, and enjoyed snacks of chili dogs, cake and ice cream to celebrate the grand opening.
“This is a chance for the kids to be normal and have fun,” said Robin Motley, a campus manager. “And it allows staff to be playfully engaged with the kids, building a positive rapport between staff and youth.”
Playful engagement is a key tenet of TJJD’s Texas Model, the umbrella program that guides all activities and interactions with youth. The Texas Model advocates a trauma-informed approach that emphasizes positive human connections and strategies that reduce conflict.
Mustang Alley, situated adjacent to the Sandy Brown Gymnasium, has been decorated playfully, too, with sports figures and game motifs painted on the walls, mainly by Giddings’ students.
Of course, all the activity at Mustang Alley will make the kids hungry and thirsty. And that’s not been overlooked. There are hot dog, popcorn, and snow cone machines standing by.
Campus recreation staff took the lead in envisioning the center and its features. They selected and requested the sport tables, game consoles and supplies, and designed the layout.
Rec staff will oversee Mustang Alley long term, and the entire team worked extra hard to get the facility ready for its opening this spring, Motley said.
Now, it will be up to the youth at Giddings State School to work a bit harder on their own game plan – to earn the privilege to visit Mustang Alley as often as possible.
All youth will get to visit the center bimonthly, to get some needed R&R. But Mustang Alley also will operate as an incentive program, with rec staff granting more frequent visits to campus teens who meet certain requirements.
If the opening is any indication, the young men will want to return early and often.
Their first “incentive” task, which launched this week, is simple. The young men must follow the guidelines for moving about the campus, and if they do, they and their dorm mates will earn additional allotted time at Mustang Alley.
Staff will watch to make sure that, as the young men move across campus, they are walking in pairs, meet the dress code (shoes tied, pants pulled up and dressed according to their “stage” or level) and that none are talking disrespectfully.
This incentive exercise will help the teens practice good habits and behavior that will serve them in any setting.
“It falls under the categories of structure, respect and appearance,” Motley said. “These are all skills they’ll need when they enter the workforce. They will need to learn to create their own routines, so they’re at work on time and dress appropriately and use respectful language.”
“This is just a first step for them in moving toward their future”
Asst. Principal Robert French retires; lauded for his dedication and decades of assistance to Giddings' Lone Star HS
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
In 2006, Robert French signed up to serve as the assistant principal at Giddings State School. He’d already enjoyed a robust career in public education as a teacher, guidance counselor, principal and ultimately, the superintendent of first Fayetteville ISD and then Giddings ISD.
He had nothing to prove, but more to give.
So, Mr. French strapped in for 15 more years, this time at Giddings State School. And those years didn’t disappoint. They unfolded to become among the most meaningful of his 52-year career, which he celebrated last week with his retirement from TJJD.
French estimates he met with some 3,000 or more students, youth who’d been committed to TYC/TJJD, over his service at Giddings State School. They shambled into his humble office just past the life-size mural of the school’s blue mustang on the painted cinderblock walls of the school lobby. They arrived for their school orientation visit, forlorn, self-doubting, uncertain, and sometimes, unreceptive.
As he saw it, the students he met had done bad things, but they weren’t bad people and they needed help. “Most all were under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both when they committed their crime. They feel terrible about themselves and what they have done . . . and they see no hope for the future.”
He tried to provide a measure of hope. He told them they could succeed. He showed them some respect and kept in mind “who they may yet become.” And after their orientation talk, he tried to stay connected.
French became known for doing “whatever it takes” to help meet the kids’ needs, said Robert Fischer, Assistant Superintendent for TJJD schools.
“This man went above and beyond the call of duty on a regular basis and could be seen roaming the campus and talking to kids, teachers, staff, and visitors every day,” Fischer said. “Mr. French made connections with nearly everyone he came across, taking time to get to know people and provide his support.”
“I have never met a person with the work ethic of Mr. French,” said Dennis Smith, who served as principal alongside French at the state school’s Lone Star High School.
“He rose early to ‘do his chores,’ including feeding the animals on his and neighbors’ property. He arrived to work early to make sure the school was open for the staff and students. He greeted all staff and students as they came in, and if the staff was already there, he would go room to room and offer each of them a greeting,” Smith said. “He did this every morning.”
“Anyone who was around him knew very quickly that he lived to help people,” Smith said.
A soft-spoken man whose unassuming ways belied his big career and impeccable credentials (Baylor and Prairie View A&M degrees), French took an understated approach with the youth. He enjoyed that friendly contact in the halls between classes, offering a quick encouragement, and getting “an acknowledgement” from each student, each day, he said.
Each day brings a new opportunity
He treasured the students’ successes – many did go on to build better lives -- and lamented that some had trouble rebounding from their early stumbles. He saw that some of the youth burned with an anger that hampered their progress, and watched a number go on to adult prison, though not before French and colleagues tried to reach them.
“The key to the tough ones is to not give up on them and no matter how bad they were yesterday, touch base with them today, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” French said. “Each is a new day that brings the opportunity for hope and progress.”
If he could not break through, French would look for someone else on staff – a Youth Development Coach, case worker or counselor – with whom the youth might better relate. “They will usually respond to someone if we keep trying,” he said.
Though he’d overseen whole school districts, French followed a philosophy that an educator should focus on the student in their immediate field of view, and soldier through the barriers they erect. He expanded on this in a letter to his sons, Denton and Lee, last week, reflecting on his career at Giddings State School. In it, he paraphrased Mother Teresa:
Students are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
If you do good, students will accuse you of selfish motives. Do good anyway.
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
What you spent months building may be destroyed in a matter of seconds. Build anyway.
But the last 15 years, that’s just part of the story. French’s history with Giddings State School stretches further back, nearly 40 years ago, to a basketball game between Round Top/Carmine ISD and the Giddings State School.
A lifelong passion for helping kids
French remembers it well. He was a principal at Round Top elementary and his eldest son, Denton, was on the Round Top varsity team that was set to play the Giddings State School team.
The Round Top families weren’t sure what to expect as they were escorted to the gym on the Giddings State School campus. This idea of having the state school kids play the local teams was brand new, an idea promoted by Coach Sandy Brown and others at Giddings State School.
“The students and staff were so very kind and friendly as all eyes were on us as visitors,” French recalled. “I couldn’t believe these students were juvenile offenders. The game was highly contested, but everyone was on their best behavior and the sportsmanship demonstrated on both teams was excellent,” he said.
“That’s when I realized there was something special about this place.”
The next year, the Giddings State School team turned up at a Round Top/Carmine basketball tournament and French was again impressed with their sportsmanship. “Whether they won or lost, the students were outstanding, and I was even more drawn to them and the staff that worked with them.”
A year later, French found himself working in the Giddings ISD district and was invited to serve on the Advisory Council for Giddings State School. He became an informal liaison between the two school districts. And at this point, serendipity sort of took over. The district games continued to include the state school students, thanks to French, Brown and others. French left Giddings to be the superintendent at Fayetteville ISD, but he returned after four years to serve as the superintendent of Giddings ISD. He rejoined the state school Advisory Council, and ties between the community and the state school grew even stronger.
At the time, the Giddings State School lacked a GED testing center, so French arranged for the youth to use the Giddings ISD testing room one Saturday each month.
Next, he collaborated with GSS staff, such as then-Volunteer Coordinator Bill Bradbury, to broaden off-campus work and community service opportunities for the young men. “Students helped in numerous projects around town such as painting storefronts of businesses along Highway 290 and upgrading the ‘Welcome to Giddings’ signs,” French recalled.
One of the most memorable community projects brought the state school youth together with the local Lions Club to clear up an overgrown section of town property that had once been a wrecking yard and was strewn with car parts and glass. The Lions provided the gloves and the youth worked alongside community adults for several Saturdays to create an area that’s now “lush and green” and serves as soccer fields and for tee-ball at Veterans Park in Giddings, French said.
The project helped solidify goodwill between the school and community that has extended forward through the years, he said.
“Our students have made some bad choices and committed crimes but that’s not who they are,” French said.
“They are just kids who succumbed to negativity to get that which all teens desire: love, acceptance, and happiness. This negativity, peer relationships, and often the use of alcohol and drugs fueled criminal thinking which led to the horror of that which they have done. They hate themselves for this weakness that led to their crimes and have a hard time living with themselves.”
Photos: Above, French at a graduation ceremony; Lower right, French, chaperoning a Giddings football game, prays with the team in 2019.