An ‘institution’ closes its doors

September 13, 2011

HOUSTON — There’s no real retiring for Marilu Ballow. 

After more than 30 years of service, Ballow officially relinquished the role of Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Special Youth Services this month to spend more time with her grandchildren. But the woman considered an “institution” in the juvenile justice community said she’s not quitting the job of living the Gospel by helping children often pushed to into crime by poverty, abuse, addiction or abandonment.

Her plans are to remain deeply involved with youth, though as a volunteer.

Even for adults, that is especially good news, particularly for Charleston Harris. He met Marilu when he was 16 and staying in a juvenile detention facility. Ballow was his personal advocate. She counseled him, found him vocational training and helped him stay the course.

Now 22, Harris says he still relies on Ballow as a sister, mother and a close friend. Just recently, she gave him a ride to a job interview. 

“When she told me she was retiring, I was like ‘No! What about me?’ ” Harris recalled. “But Marilu said I was different. She said she wasn’t retiring when it comes to me.”

Charleston shared his recollections and gratitude at a packed farewell reception at St. Dominic’s Center on Aug. 11 for the tireless “ball of fire,” who resembles a pint-sized Doris Day with her megawatt smile and sparkling blue eyes. Her Chancery colleagues, associates from the courts and social services programs and even a few of the grown “children” served by the ministry were there to commemorate her 30 inspiring years of service.

Daniel Cardinal DiNardo told Ballow he had fulfilled his promise to her to pray every day for “Marilu’s kids,” with Ballow quickly reminding the Cardinal he was not off the hook just because she was retiring. 

Over several decades, relentless advocacy, personal involvement and a commitment of the heart have marked Ballow’s career engaging with youth incarcerated for everything from truancy to homicide. Her days often begin before sunrise and end after dark. She travels across the county visiting children in detention facilities and leading after care programs for children and parents, and in the meantime always answering her cell phone to youth in crisis, said Franchelle Lee, Associate Director for Special Youth Services.

“Marilu brings the face of Christ to these children. They know they can trust her and that when she says she’ll come back for them, she comes back. The kids cling to her,” Lee said.

Ballow has also helped develop and implement numerous parenting, life skills and educational programs aimed at getting wayward youth back on track. 

“She knows people deserve second chances in this world,” said Reginald Gordon, founder and director of Operation Outreach, a gang intervention and anger management program, who has worked with Marilu the past nine years.

Ballow said one of the most rewarding aspects of her career has been watching the ministry grow. Special Youth Services works with nearly 50 volunteers to offer Catholic programming in Harris and Fort Bend County facilities as well as the Gulf Coast Trades Center in New Waverly. 

“The biggest blessing in my tenure is that we’ve really been able to broaden the Catholic presence in these facilities. We do not care if a kid is Catholic or not. We tell them everyone is welcome and the kids really appreciate that,” she said.

Her hope is that the growth will continue, with the Church expanding its presence to youth facilities in Montgomery, Galveston and Brazoria counties soon. 

Free from the administrative burden of running the ministry, Ballow says her retirement will allow her to do more of the work that she truly loves – ministering to children one-on-one.

“I’m not going to drop out. I’m still going to be working with the kids. That’s what I really want to do,” Ballow said. †