Bringing hope to incarcerated youth

April 23, 2024

HOUSTON — Within the confines of juvenile detention centers, where concrete walls and steel bars can cast shadows over the hopes and dreams of incarcerated youth, compassionate volunteers and staff from Special Youth Services (SYS) embark on a mission of hope and love to ensure these young souls are not forgotten.

Approximately 3,000 detained youth aged 10 to 17 are served annually by SYS ministers through weekly visits to juvenile justice centers, facilities, and programs in Harris County, Fort Bend County, Galveston County, Brazoria County and Walker County. These ministers remind the youth of Jesus’ unconditional love and mercy, ensuring they know they are not forgotten and that someone cares, regardless of their backgrounds and past actions.

Volunteer Delores Gibson once learned about SYS during a presentation from a visiting deacon at her parish. She truly grasped the significance of the ministry’s mission and felt a divine calling to get involved. She witnesses the transformative power of sharing the Word of God through her weekly Bible studies with the youth, which offers hope and guidance. She said she believes her role is to illuminate the Gospel message and allow the light of Christ to shine through to penetrate the harsh realities they face both within the detention center and in their troubled home lives.

“SYS provides the Bibles to these kids, so it’s rewarding to know that they are reading them during the week and coming to Bible study with their questions,” Gibson said. “I’ve had kids tell me, ‘Wow, you’re blowing my mind! I didn’t understand that before.’ So, it’s truly uplifting to see their eyes light up when they make that personal connection and develop a new understanding of Scripture.”

Gibson’s involvement with the youth has deepened her own connection to her Catholic faith and prayer life. She relies on the Holy Spirit to equip her and bring forth an encounter with Christ with the youth during her time with them.

“It’s very important for me to demonstrate the compassion I have for each of them, and most importantly, the love that God has for them, to help guide them through their problems,” she said.

Gibson witnesses the impact of SYS’ community engagement initiatives, such as the creation of Hope Bags by children in Catholic Schools, parish ministries and other organizations. The bags, adorned with artwork and filled with holy cards, snacks and handwritten messages of encouragement and inspiration, deliver more than just prayers and support to detained youth; they leave a profound and lasting impression.

“I had one young man approach me with his handwritten letter from the Hope Bag, and as he read it to me, tears welled up in his eyes,” Gibson said. “When he finished, he held the letter closely to his heart and said, ‘I will treasure this forever, Miss Delores!’”

Another dedicated volunteer with SYS, Adam Garcia, also witnesses the profound impact of the Lord’s mysterious ways in the lives of the youth he serves inside the detention centers.

“In our ministry, which is heavily focused on evangelization, we are constantly planting seeds in the kids’ hearts by discussing the Gospel, God and prayer,” Garcia said.

However, sometimes we encounter challenges such as kids being transferred to another unit or leaving for another location, which disrupts the continuity of our interactions. Despite these issues, we trust that the seeds we’ve planted will continue to grow and bear fruit in their lives.”

Garcia believes that consistent engagement with the same youth over time in Bible studies fosters trust and encourages them to open up about their faith. He recounted witnessing the transformation of a young man in his Bible study, from skeptic to advocate for Christ, as evidence of the profound spiritual growth that can occur.

“This young man initially tested us by joking around a lot to see if we truly cared,” said Garcia. “But over time, he regularly attended Bible study and actively participated in readings and discussions. He became a really good influence on the rest of the unit, making sure the other kids attended and were paying attention.”

Joe Barber, a candidate for the permanent diaconate, was assigned to SYS as his social service ministry. He understands that the youth often face difficult circumstances and systemic challenges. Yet, like other children, they have dreams and aspirations. He believes that with improved circumstances, their lives can go in a new direction.

“I’ve watched these youth grow and expand in their faith life, seeing their prayer life take root, far beyond what I ever imagined,” Barber said. “This experience has helped me become an ambassador for them, with a new appreciation for the challenging circumstances that many face in the juvenile justice system.”

He emphasized the importance of providing physical and pastoral support to these marginalized young individuals, fostering a renewed faith and hope, even in challenging situations.

“Interacting with these youth and knowing you are doing God’s work is a rewarding experience that will give you incredible peace and insight,” Barber said.

Franchelle Lee, director of SYS, shared her profound gratitude for the compassionate and dedicated services of Gibson, Garcia and Barber, as well as all the SYS volunteers and staff. They selflessly give their time and talent to support these detained youth, ensuring they are not forgotten and providing hope and guidance during challenging times, she said.

Given the vital role of SYS’ mission for the youth, at-risk families and society, Lee encouraged the faithful in the Archdiocese to support the annual appeal for the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF). This fund is essential for SYS to fulfill its mission of evangelizing and providing essential support, pastoral care, advocacy, and faith sharing for youth in local juvenile justice centers and programs.

“The DSF allows us to provide programs for youth and families that would not have access to quality services,” Lee said. “Contributions to the DSF do not stay within the four walls of our office but are taken into the communities, benefiting all those we serve.”

To learn more about SYS and its offerings for at-risk youth in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and to learn how to volunteer, visit

To donate to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s DSF annual appeal, go to The DSF supports SYS and 63 additional ministries, whether direct service or education, which require this critical funding to remain in operation. Out of each gift given to DSF, 100% of every dollar goes directly to supporting these ministries.

(File photo by James Ramos/Herald)