By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Tamayo House staffers Israel Saenz and Gerardo Penuelas both discovered guitars as kids and found joy making music.
Today they reach back to those early experiences when they were immersed in teen bands or plucking away in self-soothing solitude as they teach the young men at Tamayo how to pick, strum and otherwise rock out in their own way.
For Saenz, who came of age in the 1980s and loves roots and rock and the blues, everything from Robert Johnson to Stevie Ray Vaughan, his guitar was his trusted boyhood companion.
“I tell these boys that when I was growing up, my guitar never let me down, whether I was sad or not. I could always express my feelings with it.”
As a left-hander from a household where money was tight, Saenz had to restring the acoustic guitar his mother found for him at a rummage sale. Paid lessons were out of the question. But he found inspiration in the music and life story of the great Jimi Hendrix, a fellow leftie and self-taught guitarist, who not only mastered the instrument, but shook up the world with his reverberations.
Back in the ‘80s, long before YouTube instructional videos, Saenz listened to local musicians at restaurants and Quinceañeras. He picked the players brains, if not also their instruments. Then he returned home to dwell in the peace of working out tunes on his broken guitar that bullies teased him about.
By age 15, he played by ear so well that “of course I was in a band,” Saenz says with a knowing chuckle. Who wasn’t in a band at 15!
His ensemble played the cover songs everyone wanted to hear. And Saenz greatly enjoyed entertaining people. But he later broke away to create his own music.
“I love to write music. A lot of people like to play cover songs, but to me, someone already did that.”
At the age of 11, Penuelas was also searching for a way to take the music lessons he couldn’t afford. He found the solution at his Catholic church, where he picked up both the guitar and the art of barter and trade.
He asked the church elders if he could receive guitar lessons. He could, replied the priest, though he drove a hard bargain: Penuelas could get lessons in exchange for playing at masses.
“I ended up playing at the 9 and the 12 -- and the 5 on Sundays -- and the 5 on Saturday,” Penuelas recalls. He played four masses each weekend, for many weekends, adding up to many masses -- and he became a young master guitarist.
By 13, Penuelas was himself instructing a passel of younger kids at the church. He was allowed to use a classroom for the lessons -- $1.50 a pop per student – as long as he kept playing guitar, that’s right, at mass.
Soon, he was also teaching adults at the church and this time devising the deal. He gave guitar lessons in exchange for piano lessons for himself.
He joined a teen band, expanded into vocals, and took everything he learned at the church out into the wider world. His band played paid gigs at parties and TV stations, and once brokered a plan where they watched movies for free at a local theater in exchange for performances.
“At intermission, we’d rock and roll!” Penuelas says.
Though they never “made it big,” his band enjoyed cranking out covers of popular Eagles and Doobie Brothers tunes.
Penuelas kept with music, performing with his high school choir and in musicals like The Music Man and South Pacific. Later he studied voice at Pan American University in Edinburg (now the University of Texas at PanAm) and as adult, joined various community bands and chorales, while building his daytime career in social work and public safety.
Paying it forward at Tamayo House
Today, Saenz, a Youth Development Coach, and Penuelas, a caseworker, bring their decades of knowledge to their work at Tamayo House, a halfway house in Harlingen, where they relish the opportunity to help youth find the emotional lift music can provide.
“Music can open a lot of doors for them, even if they’re very passive about it, it can release a lot of stress. They can write a song about how they’re feeling, and play the guitar at the same time. Without using any drugs or alcohol, they can lose themselves playing guitar and at the same time it creates a discipline,” Penuelas said.
For youth who’ve suffered traumatic childhoods, as so many at TJJD have, and may be slow to trust, playing music can be both quell social anxiety and provide a bridge to connect with others.
“It’s the universal language,” says Saenz, who’s worked at TJJD for 23 years, the last 12 at Tamayo.
He began teaching guitar to interested youth more than a decade ago, alongside Youth Development Coach Derek Rivera, a former music teacher who then led the lessons at Tamayo. They taught mainly on weekends, when the schedule allowed, but with the support of Tamayo leadership, now helmed by Superintendent Eduardo Garza.
Last year, Garza and TJJD leaders boosted the program by adding three new guitars and several rhythm drums.
“This program exemplifies what we’re trying to do with the Texas Model, helping youth to feel empowered and extend themselves and try new things,” Garza said. “That works so well when they have caring role models like Saenz and Penuelas.”
Saenz, 49, teaches the boys as he learned, not reading music, but playing by ear and feel. He stresses four key aspects to keep progressing: “I tell them, first picture it in your mind; then feel the music; then express it through the instrument and four, the most important part, is to share it.”
Sharing is important because it builds human connections and commitment to the music, Saenz said. He’s written music for relatives including a song for a cousin who lost his son. “It was like his soul was speaking to me. I think it’s a beautiful song. It’s about his son and his relationship.”
Saenz works in inspirational stories about musicians, recounting, for instance, how legendary guitarist Eric Clapton “went through a dark time when he lost his 7 year old son.”
“He went through a depression. But he expressed all those feelings through his music and he gave us a gift -- that song, ‘Tears in Heaven’. You can really feel what he was expressing and we can also feel for a loved one or a friend,” Saenz said.
He encourages the boys to express themselves and not worry about matching what others can do. He tells them there’s no “bad” music, if a person is expressing their feelings.
Once he sees a Tamayo student is striving to learn, Saenz tries to provide the music the young man loves, whether its blues, rock, country or Tejano. Recently, he helped a young man learn a Hendrix-style version of the Star Spangled Banner, a song the youth wanted to learn to share with his father.
“I try to simplify the music they’re liking and once they see it’s possible to play the songs they like, it just encourages them to want to play more. I demonstrate what you can do, but from then on it’s about them and what they want to do.”
Penuelas, 61, who’s been at TJJD for 15 years, teaches guitar and drums to Tamayo youth. The drums appeal to young men who’re working out rap rhythms or lyrics.
Like Saenz, he’s motivated to spread the happiness music brings and help the youth learn something they can take with them, whether it’s the start of a hobby, vocation or just positive memories.
“They can play guitar wherever they go and they can also teach their kids the guitar. It’s a fun instrument to play,” Penuelas said.
“I tell them it’s like riding a bicycle, you never forget, but if you don’t practice you cannot be doing those wheelies,” Saenz said.
Both men say they’re glad that the program is stronger than ever, with a better equipped music room that tempts youth to try the strings.
“There’s been a lot of youth who’ve taken advantage of this and learned a lot,” Saenz said, “and when I see how excited they get that’s just a great feeling.
(Photos: Top - Israel Saenz works with a student in a private lesson. Bottom - Gerardo Penuelas poses with three of his music students.)
Several TJJD campuses boast thriving edible gardens either as free-standing projects or part of the horticulture programs offered by Lone Star high schools.
These include two new promising gardens installed this spring at Ayres and Tamayo halfway houses, where students and staff carved out backyard beds and planted peppers, melons and other edibles.
Meanwhile, the large established gardens at the Gainesville and Edinburg facilities are bursting with life this June as tomatoes, squash, corn and greens mature and companion flowers bloom, brightening the campus and inviting beneficial insects like butterflies and ladybugs.
These venues provide students with opportunities to learn about horticulture and earn certificates they can use when they are ready for work.
At Gainesville, horticulture teacher Steven Seeds (whose parents apparently knew he was destined for this work) oversees sprawling outdoor beds and a greenhouse packed with flowers and vegetable plants where he and his horticulture students learn about planting and pruning, soils and amendments and how to vanquish plant pests.
Seeds’ gardens are a revolving cornucopia, with this year’s beds containing three types of corn, potatoes, Swiss chard, onions, cucumbers, wildflowers and cherry, Roma and beefsteak tomatoes. Serrano and jalapeno peppers grow in the greenhouse.
His horticulture students enjoy tending the gardens because they get to see and sample the fruits of their efforts, says Lone Star North Principal Eric LeJeune. “The kids love the little peppers, they really like the hot stuff.”
The youth also appreciate learning the applied sciences of horticulture and landscaping because it helps build skills they can use to get jobs at nurseries or landscaping companies, LeJeune and Seeds said. These vocations provide great entry-level jobs and also opportunities for creating one's own business, Seeds said.
Beyond that, many of the kids also already understand that gardens are an adjunct to self-sufficiency, a way to supplement one’s income and assure well-fed families.
“A lot of them tell me they have had gardens at home, mostly with grandparents, they tell me grandparents have instilled gardening with them,” said Seeds who’s managed the Gainesville program for five years following 40 years teaching a variety of vocational classes at North Texas schools in St. Joseph and Maybank.
“I like to help these kids, a lot of them have never had the help they needed,” he said. “They like for people to get in there and teach them stuff and help them to create a job for themselves when they get out.”
Over the last four years, some 100 students at the Gainesville campus have earned the Texas Nursery Landscape Association’s state certificate, he said. That has real meaning when they apply for work with nurseries or landscape companies.
At the Evins facility in Edinburg, horticulture teacher Timothy Hinds manages the classes and the plots. Hinds and his students grow tomatoes, carrots, greens and watermelon. He says the vegetable gardens will virtually shut down in the middle of the high hot season in July and August.
At Gainesville, too, the horticulture program will take a pause in the middle of summer, though students can continue with the book-learning aspect of the program.
Then soon it will time to plan and plant the fall gardens.
Like everyone, youth and staff at TJJD have had to deal with certain limitations during the coronavirus outbreak.
And while that has created challenges, it has also produced discoveries as youth try new things.
At Gainesville State School, the young men are taking advantage of the spring weather and outdoor spaces to fly kites, exercise with hula hoops and coax coaches into impromptu football practices.
They’re fixing bikes and working outdoors in the horticulture garden, which remains accessible while the school building is closed.
Even so, some days demand extra creativity.
When a group of boys recently seemed at loose ends to fill their recreation time, Community Relations Coordinator Robin Motley remembered the parachute she had stashed away for just such moments.
She and the boys’ case manager Kyle Hellinger and Youth Coaches Desire Bostice and Colnesha Tucker got the game going. Soon, the youth were all smiles.
It was also a teaching moment, or more to the point, a self-teaching moment. The young men, who’d been struggling the hour before, found themselves working as a team and overcoming their lassitude.
“They pretended the parachute was their environment and the balls (bouncing in the parachute) were their emotions,” Motley said. “So, in effect, they were learning to communicate how they felt.”
This was just one of the many new activities staff have been trying out as they replace gaps in schedules caused by restrictions related to the pandemic, which have curtailed outside visitors and temporarily suspended outside community service work.
Coaches, volunteer and recreation staffs have been sharing ideas across TJJD to broaden engagement opportunities and keep activities fresh.
“It has been challenging at times,” Motley said, “but the kids have been adapting quite well.”
Photos: Robin Motley
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Welding classes at Lone Star High School North get underway quickly. As soon as the heavy metal door to the shop slams closed, students crisscross the floor, briskly rolling out machines, donning flame resistant jackets and snapping on face shields.
A few hellos, a gathering of tools and the shop hums like a vintage car. During our visit early this year, motors whirred and sparks flew, giving the room an air of possibilities. Flames shot from the welding “sticks,” as they seared through metal. Each weld inched toward a creation, a barbecue smoker or a trailer hitch, and charted the student's progress toward a series of certificates confirming their competence as a welding apprentice.
It’s no wonder the students waste no time getting started. The shop offers both creative and practical rewards.
For C.H., the class became his purpose and solace during a 10-month stay at Gainesville State School. He saw the metalcraft as his path toward independence, welding being a needed and well-paid trade. He also discovered it could be an emotional anchor, offering, despite the crackling din of the shop, zen moments. He felt it when fully immersed in welding tasks.
“Whenever you’re under the welding hood and all you can really hear is the welding machine and the arc, it’s just a calm place for me I guess,” he said.
When C.H. got to Gainesville, he’d already served time in a county probation program for youthful offenders. There, he excelled at academics. Presented with online classes to study for his graduate equivalency certificate, he completed the 20+ credits he needed in lightning speed. In just nine months he had his GED, an amazing feat for someone still in his middle teens.
He arrived at Gainesville State School, merely 16 years old, and effectively done with high school and ready for next steps.
Fortunately, Gainesville’s well-established welding class, helmed by veteran teacher Denver Foster, stood ready for students who need a new challenge. Foster and other Vo-Tech teachers across TJJD say they’re well positioned to help students who may not be headed to college, but are motivated to build career skills.
“As soon as I got here they put me straight into welding classes and I have come to very much love it,” C.H. said in a soft voice. “I like the ability to make things. You control that metal and it does what you want it to do, if you handle it right.”
After taking the pre-requisite safety tests, he quickly moved to fabricating products. Foster watched with pleasure as C.H. helped with a big class project, the creation of a barbecue smoker, and also assembled and polished four metal practice sleds that the class created for the school’s Tornadoes football team.
Just as he had whipped through online academic classes, C.H. quickly dispatched with all the incremental tests showing he could weld in different positions -- laterally, overhead, and so forth. He earned seven welding certificates and advanced into a new role as a peer mentor helping other students.
“He was like my right hand,” Foster said. “All these boys are like my boys, and I’m like their proud dad.”
C.H. was exceptional, though, and mastered skills at Gainesville that are nearly akin to what he’d acquire at a longer community college program, Foster said.
“He’s got some good prospects that’s for sure. He could make an easy $15 to $18 an hour starting wage in any large market in Texas.”
Tall, soft-spoken and studious, C.H. grew up in a small town in Texas in his paternal grandparents’ home. His mother was “not in the picture” and his father had “one foot in” his life, he said.
He played sports, did well in school and read avidly -- both the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series. Reading was good company, but English, was not his favorite academic subject. He enjoyed math, science and history, and when he was sent to a boot camp program, he quickly mastered the online classes in those subjects.
“A lot of it was just easy,” he says, explaining that the online aspect of the courses allowed him to jump ahead and pass tests to demonstrate competence.
Though he’d made some big mistakes in life, landing him in probation, C.H. says he was also learning that putting his mind to a task yielded rewards. After a second violation of the law resulted in his probation being revoked and a commitment to Gainesville, he learned something else.
“I think he was surprised by how much people here were willing to help him,” said his former caseworker Rebecca Williams. She recalls several long and intense conversations with Ryan as he worked out plans for his future.
“He’s such a sweet kid, caring and wants to do good. He’s really the sort of kid who makes you realize why you do this job,” said Williams, who is now the family liaison at Gainesville.
C.H. credits Williams, Foster and several dorm staff with helping him stay motivated and his volunteer mentor Judy Davis with helping him see the big picture.
“My old mentor she used to say that being in the system can either be a stumbling block or a stepping stone, so I used it as much as I could, so it would be easier when I got out,” he said.
Like so many youth at TJJD, C.H. was dealt some tough hands early in life, and as a result, he’s slow to trust and good at putting up emotional walls, Davis said.
“The life that some of these kids have, it really does break your heart,” she said.
At the same time, she says, many youth, like C.H., are driven to help themselves as they approach adulthood. There’s a window of opportunity for mentors, teachers and coaches to reach out, reinforce positive behaviors and offer guidance and support that can make a difference, she said.
Davis always offers to stay in touch with youth she’s helped, she said, but she leaves the decision to maintain ties to them. Sometimes, she’ll get a call from a young man she hasn’t heard from in a long time, telling her they’ve gotten their life on track. She hopes C.H. will be among those who succeed and report back.
“He’s learned a lot of people skills he didn’t have before,” she said. “He’s learned a lot about himself too, what his trigger points are and how he can think differently.”
Now at a halfway house, C.H., now 17, expects to go home in May. He looks forward to reconnecting with his sister and then getting into the workforce as soon as possible, ideally as an apprentice at a commercial welding shop.
Unfortunately, C.H. may again face headwinds as the job market wobbles in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But he vows to be ready when the jobs openings present themselves.
“As soon as I get a stable job where I can live independently that‘s what I plan on doing.”
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Like many direct care workers in many sectors, TJJD staff have been wearing masks every day on the job.
And no one is rocking the masked look better than the staff at the Mart facility, thanks to family and volunteer staff who went on a hunt for donated masks and the happy coincidence that the Waco area has turned out to be a Texas hotbed of mask production.
But before we get into all that, a little background:
TJJD employees each receive a medical grade disposable mask as they check in for work, which helps protect the youth from exposure to any potential germs that an employee might spread when they sneeze, cough or talk. This is part of many steps the agency put into place to help slow the spread of coronavirus and protect TJJD secure facilities and halfway houses. (See TJJD’s protective measures: https://bit.ly/3bQnj98 )
But cloth masks also are suitable for protecting others from potential droplet spray and TJJD staff members are allowed to wear reusable cloth masks. (By the way, anyone who’s sneezing or coughing a lot or feels sick or is running a fever is not allowed in to work.)
Homemade cloth coverings are acceptable and recommended for use in public settings, according to the CDC, and simply should be washed routinely, based on their use. (CDC guidelines on masks: https://bit.ly/2VLtfLa )
And let’s be honest, homemade masks can be quite comfortable and reassuring when they fit nicely, and even attractive, though of course that’s not the point.
Volunteer and family staff at Mart's McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility were thinking about how to help out with masks and calling people to see if they could locate volunteer seamstresses.
A few calls in they hit the motherlode. A former trauma nurse, Reyna Perales Reyes, and her seamstress mother, Matea Perales, had created Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID and Texas Seamstress for Crisis, organizing a fleet of home seamstresses to supply masks to medical workers facing gaps in protective gear at local hospitals and nursing homes.
The seamstresses, based in their homes across the Waco area, had become a corps of more than 200 and were producing hundreds of masks each day.
Reyes said the organization sprang to life in a burst over its first weekend in mid-March, helped by the Facebook page she set up (Waco Masks Seamstress for COVID) and a community yearning to help out.
“I added all my friends, and I know some community leaders,” said Reyes, who now works in social marketing and serves as a board member of Caritas. “They knew I would organize it well. They invited their friends, and those friends invited their friends.”
As word of the effort grew, businesses jumped in. Soon Waco Masks Seamstress was working out of a building owned by event-supplier Action Rental, which had had to close under pandemic rules. The owner simply handed the key to her, Reyes said, and the building become the hub where donated fabrics could be accepted and stored, patterns assembled, and masks sorted and packaged.
Working with Waco Emergency Operations Center, Reyes, CEO of Texas Seamstress for Crisis, got the new business designated as essential and began collaborating with officials in emergency relief to assure the masks went where most needed.
More businesses and several churches signed on, providing in-kind goods and donations. Banana Scrubs, which had closed a few years earlier, sent over bolts of warehoused fabric, and Shipp Belting began dye-cutting fabric pieces to assist the seamstresses. Masks went out, and continue to go out, to Baylor Scott and White and Providence hospitals, police and fire departments, nursing homes, health clinics and others in critical services. After a few weeks, the group began fulfilling requests from other types of local businesses employing essential workers such as HEB grocers (which also donates to the project) and a local meatpacking plant.
Just as quickly as orders come in, they go out, Reyes said, estimating that each day the operation takes in and sends out 400 or more sewn, washed and ready-to-use double-ply masks.
“They’re still going full speed ahead,” she said. “But I’ve lived 40 years in Waco and Waco is just like that; if you need work done, you’ll find someone to do it. I’ve not had many people drop out, and that, to me, is just amazing.”
And it was also amazing to Mart staff, when they discovered that their direct-care workers could qualify for the donated masks, now that the need in the medical community was easing.
Last week, Family Liaison Robin Black, Community Volunteer Coordinator Tanya Rosas and Assistant Superintendent Emily Shaw gratefully received 400 masks from the group, enough for everyone on staff to receive one.
The Mart facility also had earlier received 25 hand-sewn masks made by Janice Hinton at the request of Mart volunteer Patti Wiley who wanted Phoenix Unit staff to have masks.
As Rosas and Black handed out the masks, they couldn’t help but notice that the donated face coverings, stitched in a dazzling mix of patterns and colors, create a true bright spot in uncertain times.
“When they come and get them,” Rosas said, “staff are like, ‘Oh my gosh, that is so sweet for those people to have done that for us’.”
Photo 1: Family Liaison Robin Black, Waco Masks Seamstress CEO Reyna Reyes and Asst. Supt. Emily Shaw posed with their masks.
Photo 2: MCSJCF Supt. Michelle Havranek shows the first batch of masks received.