Evins campus gathers families for a fun day of art activities, games and bingo
By Fidel Garcia, Volunteer Services Coordinator, Evins campus
Seems like it was yesterday when TJJD families gathered at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center for a family day. But it was many months ago!
Fast forward almost a full two years, and we enjoyed our first quarterly in-person family day since the pandemic began in March 2020. It came just in time for Mother’s Day 2022 and kicked off with the youth making cards for their mothers during an arts and craft activity led by our caseworkers. The young men then gave the finished cards to their moms or guardians.
“We had a great turn-out,” said Family Reentry Specialist Crystela Garza, who coordinated the event, “The youth and their families were able to enjoy time together to continue working on developing that family bond and connection. We were able to provide families with pizza, drinks, nachos, and snow cones.”
Garza thanked Café Manager Martina Villarreal for the baked fresh pineapple turnovers she made as dessert for everyone. “All staff were just very helpful, and we thank them all,” Garza said.
Case managers helped entertain the families, running a variety of fun interactive games that got everyone working together as a unit and made the day even more enjoyable.
One of the most talked about games that parents, children and TJJD youth enjoyed was bingo, which allowed them to win numerous prizes, such as tote bags, makeup bags, picture frames and throw blankets among other items.
Several families indicated that they had not seen their son in person for quite some time and expressed how happy and grateful they were to be given this special time with them.
Many of the family’s children visiting went home with several prizes each.
“Games have an important part to play here,” said Texas Model Mentor Martha Garcia. “During this family day, parents were empowered to provide a nurturing environment with the use of games and other learning activities.” This is one step toward the youth mastering key life skills as they reintegrate back into their respective homes and communities, she said.
Chrystela Garza expressed much appreciation to the Evins Volunteer Council for assisting three families with gasoline gift cards for the long round trip from home to Evins and for funding the gifts and meals for them.
One mother who drove an 8-hour round trip from Victoria, Texas said she was so grateful for the gas gift card because she recently lost her job and couldn’t have made the trip without the extra help. With the help, she also was able to bring the young man’s grandmother to visit as well.
At Family Day, volunteers from the Catholic Dioceses of Brownsville pitched in to provide activities for youth who had no family coming to visit and provided the teens with a bag of Takkis and a chocolate candy bar.
“I witnessed so many smiles,” said Evins Superintendent Eduardo Garza, reflecting on the day.
“The youth felt important and loved by their loved ones and staff,” Supt. Garza said. “The youth were able to see their loved ones and have a chance to voice their thoughts and feelings in person. The youth and families left the event with a better connection.”
Meet these inspiring TJJD staffers this National Correctional Officers Week
By TJJD Communications
This first week of May is National Correctional Officers Week, when we salute TJJD’s hard-working direct care professionals.
At the top of that list are our Youth Development Coaches, who manage the day-to-day activities of the young men and women entrusted to our care. Our coaches are not “correctional officers” in the common sense but serve as mentors and role models, guiding youth toward a brighter future.
They are joined on our campuses across Texas by a virtual village of direct care staff -- case managers, health treatment providers, recreation coaches, teachers, campus supervisors, managers, and security officers. These professionals work diligently each day to assess the risks facing TJJD youth, meet their needs and help them heal. They coordinate with each other, leverage their areas of expertise, and set the tone and pace of change. They train, teach, demonstrate, cajole, commend, challenge, applaud, reminisce, and rejoice with and for the youth. These jobs are not for everyone, that’s the truth! But they’re awesome for the right person.
These days all TJJD professionals are trained in the Texas Model, a broad, science-based program of trauma-informed methods and strategies that help youth better manage their emotions, resolve conflicts peacefully, set goals and act in their own best interests, equipping them to return safely to their communities.
As we commemorate this week, we thought you'd want to meet some of these amazing TJJD staff member. Scroll below to read their stories in their own words. And also, please join us in thanking ALL of our staff, at all levels and all campuses, who show up 24/7 for the young people who depend upon them.
Stephanie Johnson, Senior Youth Development Coach, McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility, Mart
I started working for TJJD in February 2011. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t join the agency earlier in my career! Before I started with TJJD, I worked at a day care, but my best training came from the fact that I have fifteen siblings, eight of whom are boys! I have had the chance to make great relationships with the staff, and I love engaging with the youth. My favorite activity with them is trivia because it’s fun and educational. They love it as well!
I currently work on the Incentive Dorm, which allows the youth to earn points for their behavior and for keeping the dorm clean. They can then spend their points on leisure time, playing video games, or snacks. A little bag of Takis or a bowl of spicy noodles brings so much happiness to these kids.
I come to work with an open mind and want to be very teachable when it comes to working with the youth. The Texas Model has taught me to be more patient and try to find the best possible solutions to problems. I’ve learned that not every action requires a reaction. I give ample warnings, “time ins,” and “do-overs” for behavior.
I love to share my own past experience with the youth because I made mistakes when I was younger. I always tell the youth that strong people raise strong kids, and that if they keep working and see me as a positive role model, they will win and be their own success story!
Jonathan Simpson, Senior Youth Development Coach, Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex, Brownwood
I was born and raised in Brownwood and initially started at the agency back in 2004, when it was known as TYC (Texas Youth Commission). At the time, both my mother and stepfather were dorm supervisors. In 2008, I took a break and transitioned to the adult side of corrections. I came back in 2019 and worked with the girls in residence for a bit before accepting a Senior Coach position with our boys’ O/A (Orientation and Assessment).
When I first started the agency, the program we were running focused on correcting the behavior right then. Now, with TBRI (Trust-Based Relational Intervention) we still address the issue, but we are more focused on what is causing these types of issues. We concentrate on getting to the core of it and to do that you have to have a trusting relationship with the youth we supervise.
The program requires you to engage in daily activities and programming with our youth and understand where they come from and what different types of trauma they may have encountered. TJJD does a really good job in providing you with the training and materials to understand that there is science behind these issues. Not only has it helped me become a better staffer, but it has also transformed me into a better parent as well.
My favorite playful engagement routine or activity to do with the youth: I like to carry a ball around in my pocket. If I notice a youth that may be struggling or is dysregulated. I use this ball to interact with the youth. I’ll get their attention and bounce them the ball and from there create dialogue. The youth seem to enjoy it.
Definitely the best part of my job is working with our youth. I enjoy engaging with them every day whether it’s shooting a couple of hoops with them, participating in an activity, or just listening to them vent. It can definitely be challenging at times but very rewarding in the end.
What I wish the public understood about my job is that I really advocate for our youth. They are just like any other teenage kid they just encountered some bumps along the way. Many of them were not given the opportunities that you or I had. Yeah, they messed up but once you get the chance to understand where they come from, they are normal teenage kids. They have dreams just like mine do, and I hope with the time I put in that I can guide them towards the path to success.
My self-care routine is just spending time with my wife and kids. We love to hunt and fish and take advantage of it every chance we get. Having 3 teenagers and 7-year-old keeps us busy and entertained. Afternoons after work are usually filled with practices or games. Watching them grow and be successful is always a happy time for us!
Eric Smith, Parole Officer, D/FW and North Region
I got started in juvenile justice, starting at TYC/TJJD in 1995, because at one time, I was that youth in trouble. I was homeless, defiant, broken. So I always tell the families I work with to “keep going, keep pushing to find out what’s on the other side, to not give up!”
Fortunately, I did not spend a lot of time homeless, because I had some incredible friends in high school, and I got unofficially adopted by some amazing families of my best friends. I developed a passion for helping youth and was able to go on to seminary and worked as a youth pastor. Later, I took criminal justice classes and received my degree in criminal justice.
My favorite strategy to use on the job is getting parents involved and just having a heart-to-heart talk. I like to walk them through some new skills. It might be how to introduce yourself, because maybe due to their background, they’re a bit socially awkward. It can be skills like that they may have missed out on learning.
I enjoy teaching life skills and just getting the family and youth engaged and involved and interacting with one another, family to child, mom, dad, whomever the guardian is – because maybe they didn’t get to talk that much before. I help get the parents involved with the interview sessions we have with the youth, and I love the one-on-ones with the youth, because that’s when they open up and tell the honest truth about their struggles, and I can help them with coping skills and ways to overcome their struggles.
The best part of my job is engaging with the youth. When they’re off parole, many of them will call back regarding their success and even to see how I’m doing. It always feels good to know you impacted their life for however short of time they were with you.
I do wish the public understood these young people better. They are people. We were once in their shoes, maybe not delinquent, but we were young and impulsive, and a little patience and grace given to them goes a long way. When they see that you’re working with them, they’ll work hard for you.
Because of the shift in life that’s happened during these last two pandemic years, I do see self-care as imperative. That is something I’m mindful of. My wife and I are empty nesters now. We have five grown children and four grandchildren, but we still get up at 5 a.m. to pray, meditate and work out. So, we’re both ready for the day and that helps immensely.
Before the pandemic we went to the gym together. But now I have added gym equipment to my garage, so we have an elliptical, stationary bike, a Peloton, treadmill, and free weights. We go together to our home gym and work out. It’s a whole gym vibe in there!
Friday evenings, we end our week in the backyard under the pergola or we go out to dinner. Fridays are for unwinding, having “heart” talks and being intentional regarding what’s on each other’s heart, and enjoying one another and staying connected.
Canisha Loving, Youth Safety Manager, Giddings State School
I initially started working in juvenile Justice as a steppingstone after graduating from Sam Houston State University in May 2017 with a bachelor’s of science in Criminal Justice. I began enjoying this line of work and felt that working with young people was a good fit for me career-wise. I currently attend Lamar University and I am working on my master’s in Business Administration.
The best part of the job is being able to engage and build rapport with a wide variety of youth. I also enjoy seeing the change in youth and being a part of their rehabilitation over time. It’s always rewarding to hear success stories from youth that have been in the facility for an extended time.
My favorite activities with the youth are playing dodgeball and basketball. It's exciting to see how engaged youth are when playing these games, and it brings out the competitive side from both staff and the kids.
Since I started here the agency has adopted TBRI (Trust-based Relational Intervention). Through TBRI we are able to build trusting relationships and meet the basic needs of youth who experience adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The basic needs include providing a stable environment, emotional support during emergencies, and building healthy rapport to allow youth to feel empowered.
TBRI also gives staff a variety of tools that can be used to handle multiple situations in a calmer and more effective way. This helps staff to build trust and connections with youth. Building healthy connections can consist of allowing youth a walk-and-talk with staff members when they become overwhelmed, providing support during Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT) groups/nurture groups, and offering “re-dos” to show youth that there are other ways to handle and cope with situations.
Everyone makes mistakes that they should not be judged for. It's our responsibility to do our best to ensure youth do not make the same mistakes repeatedly.
In my spare time outside of work, I enjoy spending time at Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin and riding the 10-mile bike trail along the lake. I also enjoy spending time with family and binge-watching random shows on Netflix.
Cassandra Reyes, Senior Youth Development Coach, Gainesville State School
I joined TJJD nearly fifteen years ago. I had been working as a supervisor at AT&T for more than a decade, but I made a career change. My mom was working for the agency, and she always said it was a joy to work with the youth and the staff.
There have been a lot of changes over the years, and the Texas Model has given us the opportunity to make positive lasting connections with the youth--connections that have the power to change lives. The Texas Model is a trauma-based approach, which allows us to focus on overcoming the problem with the youth, not simply discipline the behavior.
If the youth do not understand what caused the behavior, they will struggle to overcome it. I have the opportunity to watch them improve existing skills, build positive relations, and become productive citizens. While here at TJJD, they have the opportunity to attend school and earn a high school diploma or a GED.
I enjoy assisting with football, basketball, and track. Being able to watch the youth participate in extracurricular activities reminds me so much of my own boys and is very exciting.
Daniel Guerrero Jr., Youth Development Coach, Evins Regional Juvenile Center, Edinburg
After graduating from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley with a bachelor’s in kinesiology and a minor in criminology, I knew I wanted to work with youth. When a position became available at Evins Regional Juvenile Center (ERJC), I felt that this was an opportunity to be a positive role model and mentor youth.
I have been employed at Evins for two years as a Youth Development Coach. While working in the dorm, I was responsible for engaging the youth in positive, rehabilitative activities.
In the dorm, all youth would perform their daily chores after playing games that included bowling, bean bag toss, and weightlifting exercises overseen by the recreation department. The youth enjoyed bowling the most, playing in the day area and interacting in a positive way with each other. Team leaders and case managers would participate as they got a chance to.
What I like about TJJD’s Texas Model program is that it provides youth the opportunity to learn and understand their emotions and allows me to interact with young adults in ways that balance structure and nurture.
Eventually, I transitioned to work as a coach in the infirmary, where I help with the coordination of care by bringing youth to the infirmary for med-pass, sick calls, and clinics. However, the best part of this job is the ability to interact with my colleagues, knowing that we are on a mission to make a difference in many lives.
On my days off, I like to spend time in the outdoors, whether is at the ranch or hunting. I like to spend time with my family and nephew, treating them to Texas BBQ.
Zumba Brings Dance Fever to Ron Jackson
By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
Lucinda Martinez will tell you straight away that the best part of her job is that it’s different every day.
“It never gets boring,” says the 12-year veteran Team Leader at Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood. “I love my job and I enjoy helping children. It can be tough at first to work as a correctional officer or Youth Development Coach, but you just have to make a positive bond, learn about each one of your youths. You can have fun with them. Most of the time we have a great day.”
Those activities vary: playing basketball, board games, art classes, outdoor activities, making homemade ice cream, and recently she added Zumba to that list. That’s right: Zumba.
Martinez has found leading Zumba classes to be an effective way of helping the youth in her care to have fun and get exercise during their free time. She’s been a certified Zumba instructor for 10 years but it wasn’t until last fall that she brought that skill to work.
“I love to dance, but I was a young mom and I live in a small town, so there weren’t a lot of places to dance,” she said. A friend suggested they go to a local fitness center to take a Zumba class. “They had the party lights on, they had big mirrors, it had a club feeling, they had music I liked. I just fell in love with it.”
Zumba is a fitness program built around dancing to the rhythms of salsa, merengue, reggaeton, and cumbia. An average session runs for an hour. Initially, because of coronavirus restrictions, the classes were held in the dayrooms of each dorm, but in January they were moved to the gym.
“The girls are at that stage where they’ll say ‘I don’t know how to dance but I want to’ and I said, 'We should do some Zumba.' I got it approved to do it, so I brought in my phone and we did a class along with the playlist and they loved it.”
Every female dorm at the facility has participated and the girls are always asking her when she’s going to have the next class. “It’s a way to teach them how to dance, and it’s easy. It’s got the music that they like.” She says reggaeton is especially popular with them. “It’s a workout party. You dance and you work out. We use our abs, our legs, and our arms. The girls are laughing, having fun. They’re learning different music and coming out of their shells.”
The girls’ enthusiastic response to these classes has been gratifying, but it’s not the only thing she loves about her job. Over the years she says there have been youths who have found her on Facebook “just to tell me thank you and that I helped them so much,” she said. “I have letters hanging on my walls in my office from youths telling me they will always remember me and how I'm their ideal, thanking me for keeping them in line and on the right path. Knowing that is all that truly matters to me. Knowing I made a difference in a child's life.”
Tamayo youth clean kennels, bond with dogs and earn appreciation at Harlingen Humane Society
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.”
My Brother's Keepers honored for a decade of service to Evins Regional Juvenile Center
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.