Volunteer Creates Virtual Meditation for Youth at TJJD
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Burritos were a hit. As were the omelets, chicken carbonara, and pancakes made from scratch.
But perhaps the most memorable dish was the fancy grilled cheese sandwich made with apples. At first, the boys in cooking class at Willoughby Halfway House rolled their eyes and laughed at the concept, said Cassie Green-Stephens, the volunteer instructor who created a weekly cooking program for Willoughby about eight months ago.
“They were like this is insane -- and then they liked it!” she said. They made their fancy grilled cheese sandwiches with a choice of cheddar, Swiss or Havarti cheeses and ham or turkey and maybe tomatoes, but also, those apples. She encouraged them to try it. ”I think all of them liked them, even the pickiest liked it! That felt like a big triumph.”
Green-Stephens is hoping for another triumph amid a difficult time with a virtual online program she’s created for the boys.
As Texas grapples with the coronavirus outbreak, TJJD recently restricted visitors to facilities. That means cooking classes, and other volunteer-led activities, have been suspended. Green-Stephens has risen to the moment with a plan to continue the meditation that she leads at the start of every class.
She made her first virtual meditation, on an ocean theme, soon after Volunteer Coordinator Y. Diane Caldwell notified her of the new rules and she plans to create a new one each week.
The 10-minute meditations may even be especially helpful during this time of uncertainty. They will help her maintain an important connection with the boys she mentors at Willoughby, but can be used by any TJJD facility, Green-Stephens said.
A health coach, a cross between a nutritionist and a life coach, Green-Stephens gives talks to groups on healthful living. She and her husband also produce and sell an elderberry syrup. She’s both an expert and practitioner of proactive health measures, sound nutrition and daily meditation.
And the latter, she says, is integral.
“What I hope with the meditation is that it’s giving them a skill,” she said. “I teach it to them and we talk about why it’s helpful.”
Working with the halfway house teens each week – about a dozen participate in her classes – she sees their efforts to gain control of sometimes turbulent emotions. She tells them that meditation can be a tool in the toolbox to help when they’re feeling down or even angry.
”Meditation helps create a pause between your thought and your action – that’s something I really try to hammer home with them. I don’t know why they’re in the facility, but if you can train your brain to not act on impulse, that can really help.”
Like the cooking classes, the meditation helps the boys build confidence. The quiet focus grounds and centers them, and can break through to the youth who’s tense or wont to participate.
”I see kids who are just grrrrr, mad. So I ask them to sit in meditation,” she said; the group murmurs an “Om“ or “Ohm” mantra and some of the boys may even giggle, which is fine. “And then all of a sudden, they want to come and participate in the cooking.”
“There’s so much power just in the meditation.”
Virtual Visits Help Youth Stay in Touch Amid COVID-19 Visitation Restrictions
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
There’s nothing youth at TJJD look forward to more than a visit from family. And even before COVID-19 became a household word, virtual visitation via smartphones or digital tablets was an important way to help youth keep in touch with loved ones when parents, guardians or mentors could not visit in person.
As the agency readied plans to protect facilities from COVID19 spread, leaders knew one piece of the larger plan would be to ramp up capabilities for virtual visits. The same week Governor Greg Abbott issued the March 13 order to stop discretionary in-person visits to correctional facilities, TJJD officials purchased 25 new iPads for its family and volunteer coordinator offices. Those devices have been delivered, and another 18 devices have been ordered.
“Giving the kids more opportunities to reach out to their mentors and families is providing the youth peace of mind during this unprecedented time,” said Robin Motley, Community Relations Coordinator at Gainesville State School in North Texas. “Each youth is concerned about what is going on at home and whether or not their families are safe, and we can at least help them check in more often with loved ones.”
The iPads are being distributed proportionately to the agency’s halfway houses and five large secure campuses across the state, enabling staff to offer more online FaceTime and Google Duo sessions to all TJJD youth.
Caseworkers and family liaison and volunteer staff who regularly arrange both in-person and virtual visitation are setting new schedules to help assure that all TJJD youth are able to see and speak with relatives and even mentors via online tools.
At Evins Regional Juvenile Center in the Rio Grande Valley, Family Liaison Elva Benitez maintains an iPad that she uses to fulfill a steady stream of requests for virtual visits during normal circumstances. Her effort is currently being multiplied across the campus, with caseworkers supplied with an iPad for each dorm.
Benitez and Evins’ 13 case managers have committed to scheduling a FaceTime visit for each youth at least once every two weeks. Each session must be pre-arranged by phone with family members to assure their availability. In between virtual visits, youth also are able, as always, to speak with family members on dorm phones. In fact, while in-person visitation has been postponed, each youth has been given more opportunities to make those calls.
The setup is similar at Ron Jackson Correctional Complex in Brownwood where caseworkers, family and community relations staff are holding virtual visitation sessions for students to speak with relatives during time slots set for each weekday. Staff are additionally scheduling virtual chats three evenings each week for students to speak with their mentors.
“We are all in this battle against COVID19 together, staff, family and volunteers,” said Evins campus Community Relations Coordinator Fidel Garcia, who reported that all direct care staff are pitching in with activities as well to fill gaps created by the necessary temporary suspension of visitors, volunteer-led events and outings.
Teachers and education staff are part of the effort too, Garcia said. They’ve been playing board games, overseeing group exercises and supervising other in-house activities during an extended Spring Break at TJJD schools.
Meanwhile, TJJD mentors serving a variety of TJJD campuses are brainstorming creative ways to stay in touch with youth they’d otherwise see during on-site gatherings.
At Evins, the mentors have decided to go full bore old school and have begun writing letters to youth, Garcia said.
They’ll be dropping those in the mail, because, well, there’s actually not an app for that.
Mysteries, Mangas & Mount Olympus: What TJJD Students are Reading
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
TJJD youth can find great meaning in books as they grow as individuals and reach for a better future. This past week, on Read Across America Day, we took the occasion to ask two staffers – English teacher Jill Fowler at Giddings and Librarian Henry Lewis at Ron Jackson – about some of the most popular titles making the rounds at their campus.
The number one read in our unscientific poll of two: The “Percy Jackson” fantasy adventure stories.
This will be no surprise to teachers, parents and young adult readers who’ve all likely heard of these immensely imaginative novels by San Antonio native Rick Riordan. The fantasies follow youthful modern heroes who find themselves amid Gods and serpents and monsters drawn from Greek mythology.
“Every single chapter of every book has a kid roughly their age escaping by the skin of his teeth,” said Fowler. “And there’s the fantasy aspect. I know that I, myself, read to get OUT of my reality. The boys are no different. Greek gods, Roman gods, magic, creatures from Hades: They are all in Rick Riordan’s work.”
While novels can be a great escape, they’re also a wonderful tool for bonding with others and finding common ground, which fits with TJJD's Texas Model goal of helping youth build strong relationships as they heal from past trauma.
Fowler explained: “One book leads to another, to an entire series, and boys literally sharing their private AND library books with others who see them reading on the dorm. In class, if I mention a book I like and why, a youth will usually share the title of book HE likes and why. That starts the sharing.”
Eventually, she says, this leads to books getting passed around and read so voraciously that their covers are barely hanging on.
“You can find paperback books that are taped back together just so another reading can happen before the book completely falls apart,” she said.
But that ragged book belies the joy it brought and the bonds it helped create among boys from different backgrounds.
Another prolific writer who enjoys popularity in TJJD schools is James Patterson, whose Alex Cross detective series offers the youth many mysteries with twists and turns that challenge them to consider the motivations of the fictional detective and the criminals he pursues.
Patterson “gets into the thoughts and the feelings of the characters,” Fowler said. “A lot of times before you know who the criminal is, you’ll know a lot about him. He gets inside their head.”
Patterson is popular at the Ron Jackson campus too where Lewis says he enjoys helping teen readers find books that speak to them and also books that draw them out of their comfort zone.
The urban teen romances by New Jersey writer Ni-Ni Simone and other similar young adult fiction are perennially popular, says Lewis, who manages the library at Lone Star High School West at Ron Jackson.
The girls really relate to Simone’s narratives and find characters within her books who have a similar lived experience, he says.
Another hugely popular read is “Dear Martin,” a young adult book by Nic Stone about a young African American man who writes rhetorical letters the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he navigates new environments and faces racial profiling.
The author, Lewis says, is essentially asking, “What would Martin Luther King do?” and the students really relate to the social justice themes explored.
Lewis understands that reading levels among the youth vary greatly. TJJD research shows that many students arrive at TJJD behind their grade level, sometimes by several years. He aims to help those who need a boost by providing illustrated Manga books, which naturally provide clues to the text, or offering non-fiction works about careers and hobbies that are visually rich.
Mangas are hugely popular at TJJD, confirms Reading Education Specialist Mary Singer, who works with staff across all facilities to assure students get the help and encouragement they need with reading. That task is greatly helped by librarians across all campsues, who, like Lewis, keep an ear to the ground for books that appeal to the youth.
A social worker who spent 25 years in various roles at residential and outpatient treatment facilities, Lewis says he is always gratified when he can entice a student to read more or nudge even an avid reader to expand outside their favorite genre.
One of his signature methods is to offer the students book pairings.
When a student picks a fiction book to check out, he casts about for a “bonus” book to offer that complements the topic of the novel or mystery they’ve chosen. “I will connect them the books that are in some fashion connected 'in my Winnie the Pool brain’,” he says with a laugh.
For example, Lewis might find a book about careers with horses or dogs to accompany a novel, such as Black Beauty, that features an animal; or he might offer an Italian travel guide to a youth who’s checking out a mystery story set in Italy.
“One book to entice them and maybe another to take them out of their usual genre,” he says.
Like Fowler, Lewis also facilitates discussions about books and encourages the girls at Ron Jackson to write recommendations or reviews of the books they love. He posts these in the hallway, and says they are great conversation starters.
Lewis sees himself as the resident book Sherpa and tries to stay on top of new adult and teen literature so he can make recommendations that get the youth excited about reading.
He’s currently reviewing for possible inclusion “A Piece of Cake: A Memoir,” by Cupcake Brown, who writes about her struggles and triumphs as she rose from addiction and hustling on the streets to go to college, law school and become a practicing lawyer at a major firm.
“I think some of our girls can find hope in that.”
Bandera County keeps youth on probation active and outdoors
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Youth who are placed on probation suddenly find themselves under the watchful eye of their county and checking in with probation officers every week.
In Bandera County, youth who’ve ended up in juvenile court also quickly find themselves in a canoe, on a hiking trail or taking a cooking class.
The county is not the only one to promote such programs, which are proven ways to help divert youth from getting into worse trouble. But it has developed a reputation for vigorously pursuing such solutions.
“We’re outdoors with kids every day after school for one to three hours…with whatever we’re doing that day - weights, hiking, it could be vocational training,” said Bandera Juvenile Probation Chief Matthew Haynie.
And with each activity, “we’re teaching social skills, responsibility, respect, leadership, communication, anger management,” he said.
Haynie spoke Friday to the TJJD Board of Directors at its regular bi-monthly meeting, outlining the program and explaining that the array of activities enables juvenile probation officers to “get to know the child,” so they can better understand “the issues behind the behavior.”
“Our JPOs build rapport with the youth and officers have a vested interest in them,” he said.
The community program echoes cultural shifts taking place today at TJJD to train Youth Development Coaches to more fully mentor the youth they oversee.
Bandera’s approach stands out from the norm and was even more of an outlier when it launched more than 20 years ago, the inspiration of then-Probation Chief Glenn Muennick.
It’s unique because it “frontloads the system” with a full-bore effort to reclaim kids who are still shallow in the system. And over the years, it has seen that intensive involvement with a mentoring adult (Bandera’s juvenile probation officers) pays off, explained Haynie, who’s been with the department for 10 years.
The participating Bandera youth have gained new social skills, improved their physical health, raised academic performance and have avoided recidivating, he said, noting that in the past decade fewer than 20 youth have gone on to residential treatment or to TJJD secure facilities.
In a key twist on the usual configuration, Banderas’ four fulltime juvenile probation officers (counting Haynie) lead most of the activities themselves or participate alongside the youth, helping the officers to better see the youth’s potential and deeper needs.
“You’re not really looking at the offense, you’re looking at the needs they have in the background, whether it’s trauma or abandonment issues or whether its drug abuse – whatever, we’re just trying to get to the root of the cause and finding out why they’re acting out,” he said.
Haynie showed slides of the youth rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, learning woodshop and cooking skills and repairing bicycles. “We’re going to see them between 200-300 hours if they’re on deferred probation…and much longer if they’ve been adjudicated.”
“That gives the JPO a lot of time to build rapport with the child and moves them toward prevention and intervention.” As the JPO learns more, he or she may assign the youth to additional counseling or seek specialized resources for the family, he said.
Other probation departments do similar community-based programs, he said, but “it’s just not to this level.”
Aside from the ever changing menu of outdoor and vocation activities, the county also contracts with providers to help the youth with employment, prep for graduation or even attend equine therapy.
Haynie admits that their approach may be easier in rural Bandera county (pop. 22,300), which handles 40 to 45 youth referrals each year.
But he also believes it can work anywhere. Large and medium size counties might have to pull out segments of kids or a target group to work with in the same way, but the programs would be similar and could be funded with the savings in averted residential placements downstream, he said.
“I do think it can scale, it just depends on how you set it up.”
Volunteers brighten the holidays at McFadden Ranch
By Y. Denise Caldwell, Community and Family Resource Coordinator - Northern District
Santa’s elves were seen recently busily sorting and wrapping gifts for McFadden youth. The six elves, all employees of the Levi Strauss HR department came together to provide presents for the 19 youth at McFadden Ranch and one youth on parole in Tyler.
Regina Contreraz, Tomieka Polk, LaDonia Butler, Shalonda Welborn, Melissa Ortega and Ken Kolsti spent Wednesday morning sorting, wrapping and bagging jeans, shoes, shirts, socks and backpacks. They also donated a $25 gift card to each youth.
Their actions confirmed their motto, “Giving Back Never Goes Out of Style.”
Ken Kolsti, a former McFadden volunteer and mentor, spearheaded the event. “I don’t have time to mentor like I used to,” he said. “But I still care about the kids.”
His passion motivated his co-workers to become involved and although they had never been to McFadden, they felt compelled to help. They eagerly organized and sorted the clothes by size and each took a name and got busy wrapping and filling the gift bags. Each youth will receive a large gift bag containing a pair of Levi jeans, four pairs of socks, a t-shirt, a pair of tennis shoes, a back pack and the gift card.
Many others also are generously giving their time and gifts to enrich holidays for youth at the McFadden Halfway House in Flower Mound.
Volunteers from the Fellowship United Methodist Church worked with the boys to decorate Christmas stockings, and plan to tiptoe back with candy and other items to fill those stockings for Christmas Eve.
Gateway Prison Ministry is donating exercise equipment - a punching bag and weights – and also has donated gifts for staff. The Ministry will have a Christmas celebration with the youth on Dec. 20, where they will distribute their gifts, watch a movie and eat pizza.
The McFadden Community Advisory Council will provide Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner, including ham, tamales, sides, desserts and more. They also generously donated refreshments and movies for the holiday break, so youth will enjoy hot dogs, chips and salsa, hot chocolate and more.
Staff and administrators at McFadden are grateful for the many holiday offerings.