TJJD’s direct care staff take on jobs that are detailed and demanding, facing new twists and challenges every day as they work to help young people find success in life.
Our staff shoulder these responsibilities because they know there is no work more consequential and few jobs as rewarding.
This week we proudly salute them -- our TJJD Youth Development Coaches, caseworkers, therapists, trainers and all campus staff -- as we recognize their determination and dedication during National Correctional Officer’s Week (May 2-May 8.) Each day we’ll highlight a new staffer, kicking off today with a profile of Trainer Lloyd Serna of the Evins campus.
Lead Trainer, Evins Campus
For the past 16 years, Lloyd Serna has filled many roles at Evins Juvenile Correctional Facility leading up to his current one as the Lead Trainer.
Serna launched his career supervising youth in the dorms and quickly advanced up the ranks to become a dorm supervisor of youth and staff.
He also advanced quickly after moving into the Training Department, where he was promoted to Lead Trainer in 2017 overseeing the orientations and training of more than 200 employees at Evins.
“He is an incredible asset,” said Chris Ellison, Manager of the TJJD Training Academy based in Austin. “He is knowledgeable and does an outstanding job of sharing his knowledge with others. Lloyd is an incredibly positive individual who will help out with TJJD Training wherever he is needed.”
Serna helps assure that all employees take required trainings to maintain safety on campus and learn the appropriate ways to work with youth.
Training modules also cover the rules and practices around employment discrimination, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Altogether, new hires and existing employees may take, at various times and depending on their position, up to 38 training modules.
Serna said he looks forward to continuing to build the department and credits its success to teamwork, citing his colleagues: Training Specialist Lucinda Garcia and Learning and Performance Coaches Jose Barraza and Jeanette Trevino. “I couldn’t do it all without them,” he said.
Serna and the other trainers help prepare new hires for the challenges they’ll face and counsel the new employees to “push through those challenges” and not give up.
“The old cliché that this job is not for everyone…well…I think this job can be for anyone,” Serna said, “if you have it in your heart to want to change lives.”
Serna, who is originally from Mercedes, refers to his wife, one girl, four boys, and two step-daughters as the “Serna bunch!” He loves to spend time on family activities and is an avid golfer who likes to play at different golf courses around the Rio Grande Valley.
- Fidel Garcia, Community Resource Coordinator, Evins
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
They show up every month for a variety of reasons. Some simply rue the decision they made at age 13 or 14 to permanently ink an image on their face or hands. Others are graduating from high school and getting ready for work or college and want to clear the slate, visually and symbolically.
Still others have renounced their gang affiliation and want to be sure no one is confused about that when they return home or visit their old neighborhood. They want the tattoos that link them to a gang gone, gone, gone.
Not all TJJD youth decide to get rid of their tattoos, of course, but those who do can sign up for an appointment with the free mobile tattoo-removal clinic.
“Often, they just don’t want them anymore,” said Amber Gabler, the Giddings-based technician operating the Tattoo Removal Program. “They’re not thinking with their ‘immature brains’ so much anymore and they’re wanting them off, especially those on the face. Some kids want them all off.”
“Yesterday, I saw a young man who had a huge one across the neck and a bunch on his face and all along the arms. He point blank told me, I want them all off,” to improve his chances of getting a job when he’s ready, Gabler said.
The process will take several hours of work spread out over weeks and months, she explained, because the tattoos are removed with a laser, gently, layer by layer, bit by bit, with a healing period in between each treatment. The total removal will likely comprise four, six or even eight treatments.
J.P. is now partway through the process, having completed two treatments and is starting to see some of his old inkwork fade and blur as it heads for oblivion. The 17-year-old at TJJD’s McLennan County campus near Waco said he has received so many tattoos since he started with the first one at age 13 that he couldn’t even give a number for how many he has overall. Each, though, represented a memory, he said, with some memorializing tragic events and the loss of friends or family members.
PUTTING NEGATIVE MEMORIES TO REST
The largest tattoo and the most visible spans the front of J.P.’s neck and spells out the date he lost a friend who was shot to death. That date commemorated both that traumatic loss and also the crime that landed J.P. at TJJD. The events were one and the same.
So while this was a way of honoring his friend, J.P. said he’s realized he can memorialize the young man other ways – ways that don’t taint people’s first impressions of him.
“When people see you and meet you that’s the first thing they look at and they judge you by how you look -- and you have tattoos on your face and neck, they think you’re a criminal,” he said.
“And they don’t get to know me, you know what I’m saying? Get to know a person before you judge them.”
Another negative aspect of tattoos arises when homemade tattoos – often crude etchings produced by kids with sharp tools and ink pens – mark a person as having been gang-affiliated or having a criminal background, even though people may not recognize the specific gang symbols or know the affiliation or meaning of the markings.
These random “tattoos that don’t look that good” can be a real hindrance, said M.M., a youth who recently left Ayres Halfway House and is eagerly seeking work in his home community.
He’s observed that older people, and potential employers, will judge that harshly, he said, which is why he had his face tattoos removed and wishes he’d never even gotten them.
“The ones I got removed were gang-affiliated. I didn’t want to be walking around with that stuff.
Nobody wants to hire anybody with face tattoos and a jail record,” he said, adding that the removal process was painful but “not too bad.”
J.P. sees the removals as important part of the fresh start for himself that he’s planning.
“I don’t want to keep living the way I was living. My family, they’re struggling, my dad went to prison when I was 11 and he was deported later, and my mom got deported this last year,” he said.
J.P. received his high school diploma while at the McLennan facility near Waco and when he heads home later this year, to live with a grandmother, he intends to get a job. After that he plans to go to college, and possibly major in chemistry or biochemistry.
Visible tattoos would only jeopardize his plans, he said. That’s why, in addition to the neck tattoo, those on his hands also are coming off. “I’ve heard you cannot get a lot of jobs if you have tattoos on your hands,” he said.
At the moment, J.P.’s tattoos are covered with a clear, sterile bandage protecting them against infection as they heal from the second lasering. As the numbers and symbols on his hands that tied him to a gang begin to degrade, he’s relieved to be shedding this affiliation. “I’m grateful,” he said.
TATTOO REMOVAL LEAVES A POSITIVE MARK
Gabler travels to all five of TJJD’s secure facilities and five halfway houses to treat several youth every month, helping those who want tattoos removed get it done while they’re in residence at TJJD. The youth’s freshened appearance can bring an added dimension to the wholistic transformation TJJD coaches are working to spark. TJJD's young people also receive behavioral therapies and attend school classes as well as daily “nurture” groups. All these activities operate under a trauma informed rubric, called the Texas Model, which emphasizes caring relationships and learning to exercise emotional control.
The tattoo removal process itself can be a learning process in which the youth learn to receive empathetic care and follow-up with self-care under Gabler’s guidance, said TJJD Medical Director Scott LePor. “Amber is exceptional with her skills as a tattoo removal technician as well as incredibly adept at connecting in a healthy way with our youth and establishing a trust-based relationship as they receive these services. Amber not only provides the tattoo removal service, but more importantly, she helps develop life skills with the youth for a more positive life trajectory.”
In this way, the program fits into the Texas Model by offering youth another tool as they deconstruct their past and build a new approach to life. The removals are encouraged, but no one insists. The youth decide if they want the service and they receive medical counseling ahead of the process, which is overseen by TJJD’s Medical Services Directors LePor and Jana Johnson.
Since its launch in 2016, the free service has treated 484 youths or about 96 kids each year, saving each of them hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, compared to what it would cost to have tattoo removals done later in a retail setting.
“All of them come in scared,” said Gabler, “but we talk through the process” and get to a “level place,” before the laser process begins.
J.P. went through it like a trooper, as do the vast majority of youth, though the laser skimming over the skin does cause some discomfort, she said.
Generally, the dramatic results quickly put that short term discomfort into perspective. Often, Gabler said, youth will drop by later to thank her.
Gabler recalls a recent client who’d been marked, one might even say branded, by two horns tattooed onto his forehead, mimicking the horns of Satan. The tattoo had been professionally done at the urging of gang-related peers, and it was a literal “in your face” statement that set a pre-conceived notion for all who met him.
“I was so ready to get that off of him,” Gabler said, beginning the process this past month. Some of these tattoos, she said, are “full of trauma.”
She recalled a young woman who had been branded by sex traffickers. “She comes from a wonderfully supportive family, but she got caught up with drugs and traffickers,” Gabler said. She helped erase part of the girl’s painful past by removing the trafficker’s tattoos, some of which the girl had already tried to cover with new tattoo images.
Youth who leave TJJD before their removals are complete can qualify for financial assistance to continue the removal process and may even receive help getting new removals as they decide to purge certain memories.
For many, claiming a new appearance to go with their new life is an important finishing touch.
“The kids that come to us, the majority have suffered some sort of trauma, they’ve seen people get shot, they’ve had friends who’ve been murdered,” Gabler said. “And a lot of them who were in a gang or in the ‘hood, they’ve tagged themselves with that, but as they’ve matured, they want to change. They no longer want to see that reminder. It goes so much deeper than the skin.”
Photos: Robin Black
By TJJD staff
Talk about making interesting connections. Earlier this month, Ayres House youth got to hear directly from adults serving time at the Kyle Correctional Center.
The meeting was a virtual one, in which the men in residence at KCC answered questions sent in earlier by Ayres youth. They recorded the answers on a videotape, which was then played for the youth at Ayres House.
The kids' questions primarily concerned the designated topic that KCC was working on, reading and literacy, and the mens’ lives at KCC. The men, mostly in their 30s and 40s, have all been incarcerated or served probation previously and are currently assigned to a substance abuse program at the Kyle unit.
The boys wanted to know: What keeps you level-headed in there? What are some of your favorite books and why? For those of us who don’t really read, how can we get more interested in it? What is the main lesson you learned while at KCC? What community re-entry tips have you learned that could help us?
Listening to the answers the KCC residents gave was quite exciting for the youth, said Patty Garza, TJJD’s South region community coordinator, who helped organize the unique virtual gathering March 10 at Ayres. The youth made comments afterward that they felt they shared similar backgrounds with the KCC residents, she said.
The youth and the men at KCC also share a similar status. Both are at a juncture, poised to head back to their communities with renewed personal goals and a plan for progress. Community service is a part of that journey at Ayres House and KCC and the men had prepared for weeks for the literacy project.
The work is part of a broader year-long community outreach effort that has four phases and began with the focus on literacy and the visit to Ayres, said KCC Warden Bernadette Rodriguez. KCC residents and staff will continue the literacy component with outreach to a local elementary school and a retirement home in the Kyle area.
At each visit, the staff of KCC is delivering donated books, including more than three dozen that went to Ayres.
Youth at the halfway house had put in a list of requested titles -- “Mamba Mentality” by Kobe Bryant; “The Hate You Give” by Angie Thomas; “The Giver” by Lois Lowry, the Harry Potter series, Manga books and many more – and were delighted when many of these books appeared last week.
“Some of those books had different volumes we couldn’t find, but the majority we did provide for them, and I know they were excited about that,” said Warden Rodriguez, who explained that KCC staff collected and made the donations.
KCC, based in Kyle just south of Austin, is a privately run facility that contracts with Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The corporation that operates KCC, Management and Training Corporation (MTC) is celebrating 40 years in business this year with the program of community service, Rodriguez said. Both the staff and residents of KCC are working hard to craft the local shape of the outreach, which calls for the remaining three quarters of 2021 to focus on hunger, fighting mental illness and finally, homelessness, Rodriguez said.
For the hunger component, the KCC residents are growing lettuce, potatoes, onions and other vegetables, the first crop of which they’ll donate to the local food bank later this spring.
The residents, who take vocational and anger management classes in addition to the substance abuse program, greatly enjoyed the outreach to Ayres, which was “very personal for them,” Rodriguez said.
“Many of them were in their shoes at one point, so they could relate. They told their own stories of coming up struggling with literacy,” she said.
In addition to showing the video addressing the youths’ questions, the men shared another video they’d made for the blind residents of the nursing home. In this second video, they read poems and short stories out loud, modeling both literacy and caring.
The Ayres youth were keenly interested in the virtual get-together, Garza said. “The guys sat still and were 100 percent engaged with the entire KCC resident video. They absolutely loved it and smiled, nodded, laughed,” she said.
The key message from the men: Take literacy seriously. It will make your life easier and you’ll be more confident.
Several of the KCC residents told how reading had opened up opportunities for them. One reported that learning to read well led to his earning three associates degrees ensuring he’s employable and another urged the boys to give reading books for pleasure a try.
“For me, I take a book and read the first chapter. If it catches my eye, I’ll continue. That’s how you could do it or sometimes, don’t let the picture catch your eye because a picture can be deceiving,” he said, “. . . just read the first chapter to see what’s going on.”
The men also shared their life skills tips: Maintain a small circle of friends that you know have your back and want the best from you. Connect with a sponsor or mentor and stick with the program. Set small goals and build on them, one step at a time.
“I know it’s corny, but education really is everything,” one man said. “They can’t take away what you learn and know.”
Photos: Top left - Ayres Halfway House youth watch a video sent by KCC residents as Warden Rodriguez looks on; center right -- Ayres staff hold donated books; bottom -- Warden Rodriguez speaks to the Ayres youth.
Patty Garza, Volunteer Services Coordinator for TJJD, San Antonio, and Barbara Kessler, Communications, contributed to this story.
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Oh, 2020. You were a demanding year. We all had to make so many adjustments (and we still are!).
At TJJD, students hunkered down and adapted to altered routines in which safety required they forego big gatherings, school sports competitions, off-campus work and family events.
And yet they still found bursts of joy and self-discovery amid our new reality.
We heard about some of these happier moments from Giddings State School art teacher Tracey Walker, who witnessed the boys light up when she wheeled in her art cart for fine arts class.
Before the COVID pandemic, the boys came to her classroom in the vo-tech building. But during 2020, she and other teachers went to the youth, setting up classes in dorm dayrooms so the boys could stay within their small residential groups.
Her arts class, a welcome break from academics for many youth, became even more of an occasion. The arrival of the art cart, with its sketch pencils and papers, foam and canvas boards, markers, pastels and reels of colorful lacing string, represented a chance to relax and engage creative impulses.
“To have something to do with their hands and their minds, it tends to be a lifesaver,” Walker said. “So they love it.”
Walker typically packed supplies for craft projects that anyone could learn, such as Styrofoam boards for creating abstract prints from etched foam. The boys thought that process - in which their carved designs became a reverse image pressed onto paper - was “just magical,” Walker said.
Another group favorite was making bracelets with beads or by weaving vinyl laces. The boys loved choosing colors and tinkering with these crafts as they created gifts for family members for Mother’s Day last year. They also have made many friendship bracelets for themselves and classmates.
“I get tickled in my heart because they’re so proud of what they can create. It's great, because they may not be the ones who can draw the best,” Walker said.
These craft projects often acted like a group tonic, producing “major calming effects” on the class and providing extended periods of quiet concentration. The boys began to crave these meditative periods and would remind Walker to bring the lacing strings when she returned.
“They would just sit there and do the crafts. I love to watch them quietly enjoy an activity,” said Walker, who taught public school in Houston after graduating from the University of Houston and then spent two decades in youth ministry work.
Her classes also included more serious artists, and they, too, eagerly awaited the art cart to grab up fresh canvas boards. They worked on perfecting sketched eyes, mouths, trees and mountains, creating dreamy landscapes and detailed portraits. A few produced numerous paintings during the pandemic.
Some of these students took leadership roles, helping to teach others and urging them to try sketching or drawing with pastels, she said.
Those with advanced skills receive admiration from the class. But Walker makes sure the novices feel rewarded too and praises them lavishly.
“If it’s not the very best -- that’s ok! I tell them, ‘You’re learning how to use the colors and blend colors, you did a great job!’
“There are no failures here.”
Even kids who seem initially uninterested or present behavior issues, usually turn around and surprise her.
“They’ll get to working with the art, and it produces something different in them, maybe because, in those moments, they’re getting a chance to feel successful,” she said.
“And I’m going to compliment them and tell them, ‘You are a superstar when you try’,” she said.
It is little wonder Walker has built rapport with her students that enables mutual respect. Students are mostly kind and attentive in her classes, which have embraced a broad definition of art and personal expression, with music, dancing, contests, prizes, rap, poetry and Pictionary.
Walker created several contests that were open to all students at Giddings’ Lone Star High School Southeast, said Principal Dennis Smith. That helped keep many students engaged.
Like other teachers, Walker also filled in as an “assigned” teacher in the dorms, assisting a variety of students with class work.
“While the youth were on their dorms and socially distanced in the classrooms, we did our best to help them keep up with their normal assignments,” Smith said. “The students who were fortunate enough to have Ms. Walker for an assigned teacher were able to take advantage of her daily interest and activities using her art expertise.”
Ideas she developed as a youth ministry trainer fit nicely, Walker said, with TJJD’s approach to reform. The Texas Model stresses showing kids respect and caring and providing safe spaces in which to express themselves.
At the start of the pandemic, she introduced the youth to a concept she weaves into the curriculum called “my story,” which prompts them to seriously envision a better life ahead.
“We talk about the future, and I tell them, ‘You’re writing your story, and what do you want to see on that page in 20 years, in 10 years? You want to see ‘I’m acting like a fool at 15 and I’m still acting like a fool at 35?’” She chuckles and then turns serious.
This gentle challenge, she says, is one she can make because she’s built personal credit with the kids. They know she cares and is not judging them.
“I come from a culture of love,” she said, referring to her background in youth ministries. “The kids here who I work with, they know when they’re loved and when you’re being real or not.”
“When they feel loved, and they know you love them,” then they show you their best and they drop that protective “hard” image they’ve been projecting, she said.
“Most of them were really stripped of a childhood,” she added. “It could have been the environment they were in.”
But given a chance to be themselves and unafraid, they realize “it’s OK to just have fun and laugh.”
By Y. Denise Caldwell, Community & Family Relations Coordinator, TJJD North District
Seven lucky TJJD youth got to play a popular video game, Among Us, with two NFL players Adrian A.C. Colbert, a free safety with the New York Giants, and Raheem Mostert, a running back with the San Francisco 49ers.
The live streamed event, on Jan. 19, marked the launch of a fundraiser by the non-profit foundation, Esposure4All, which plans to donate an Esports Learning Center to be installed at TJJD’s McFadden Ranch Halfway House in Roanoke.
The foundation’s goals are to help educate and empower underserved youth by providing experiential learning and fostering opportunities in the video gaming industry. The gaming room at McFadden would equip the halfway house with computers and software for game play and education in video arts.
“This initiative with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department is truly just the beginning. Esposure4All is here to open doors and empower youth to see opportunities in the emerging world of Esports,” said Brittney Seals, Executive Director of Esposure4All. “We’re excited to build on this launch effort by providing ongoing educational resources to TJJD and additional partners in the future.”
Esposure4All is the charitable offshoot of Esposure, an esports and video technology company. Both are based in Desoto, a suburb south of Dallas. Last week’s event was set up at Esposure’s gaming center, where a few employees helped facilitate the games between McFadden youth gathered at the center and the football celebrities, who played remotely. Everyone at the center wore masks and socially distanced. The boys received headsets and t-shirts donated by Hyper X for the event.
The educational opportunity presented by the new partnership aligns well with the mission of TJJD to help youth succeed in life, said Marketa Johnson, Superintendent at McFadden Ranch.
“One of our main goals is to help our youth develop a better vision for their future,” she said. “We are so grateful to Esposure4All for providing this unique, engaging experience that allows our youth to explore opportunities in the Esports industry.”
Not to mention the fun they had when the seven youth and staff visited Esposure’s gaming arena in Desoto, Texas, where, before the gaming experience, the youth toured the Center and heard motivational and inspirational words from Esposure Co-Founder and CEO, Danny Martin as well as the two NFL players.
Masked, wearing sunglasses and hoodies, the youth initially intimidated their football opponent players, by winning the first round.
However, the tables turned and with much trash talking, laughing and strategizing, the players came back and won the rest of the games. It was obvious everyone had a good time.
The youth, J.B., E. H., J. F., E.G., G.R., N.G., and D.B. are avid gamers who were excited about playing and impressed with the Esposure facility.
It was great to play against them (the NFL players) because we (the youth) came together and worked as a team,” said J.B..
J.F. said he was “grateful for the once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m really thankful because this means something to me and I’m going to take it to heart.”
“It was amazing,” said N.G. said, “We connected with each other, an unbelievable experience. It wasn’t just about the game. It was more about the opportunity to meet key people in the industry, being (in) a state-of-the-art facility with state-of-the-art equipment, from chairs to headsets and large screens. Plus, we met key people and actually played against NFL players and each other.”
NFL player Colbert shared his story and answered questions from the youth, encouraging them to “be 100% and not half-a**. I’m keeping it real!” he said.
“Make sure it (what you decide to do) makes you happy. Treat people with respect and love. Serve others, too. I’m passionate about playing video games, playing football and helping others.”
Colbert said he grew up “super hard in Wichita Falls, Texas and could have been on the path to be in jail or dead. I had to remove myself from negative situations, you know, when you have to make the right decision and stop being a follower. Be a positive example.”
He said he has 14 siblings, and all of them - younger and older ones look up to him.
When asked the best thing about being in the NFL, he said: “It’s cool to live out my dreams of playing professional football, being financially stable and able to not only help my family but give back to my community, too.”
Raheem Mostert also counseled the boys to “always believe in yourself, and don’t doubt your abilities.”
He told how he had been cut from teams several times before he made the 49ers and achieved success. “Keep fighting that long fight,” he said. “It will be worth in in the end.”
Ultimately, the Esposure4All event, which also raised $71.00, was about creating the Esports Learning Center at McFadden Ranch. It will be equipped with six player PCs, gaming chairs, keyboards, mice and monitors and the youth will learn to play and learn about opportunities in Esports.
To learn more about Esposure4All and contribute to its mission, visit the Esposure website.
Photos: Upper left, McFadden Ranch youth seated at gaming consoles; Middle right, Brittney Seals, Executive Director of Esposure4All, and Marketa Johnson, McFadden Ranch Superintendent, discuss the new partnership for the livestream; Lower left, A rendering of the proposed gaming room for McFadden Ranch. These photos courtesy of Esposure4All. Bottom, a screenshot of the game play with Colbert and Mostert.