Bringing the faith, hope and love of Christ to youth in detention centers despite pandemic

November 24, 2020

Volunteers and staff from the Special Youth Services Ministry used Zoom to host their annual “Saintly Saturday” event. (Photo courtesy of the Special Youth Services Ministry)

HOUSTON — The engagement between youth living in detention centers and those who minister to them requires creating a new kind of space to bring the faith, hope and love found in Christ to His children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Becoming understanding and amenable to change and adaptability is key.

The at-risk youth and juvenile probation ministry responsible for modeling the embrace of Christ’s pastoral care, advocacy and faith sharing to an average of 3,000 youth annually in the Archdiocese is Special Youth Services (SYS). According to Franchelle Lee, director of SYS, strict mandates due to COVID-19 have tested the ability of staff and volunteers to minister to the detained youth to the fullest.

Lee said SYS’s pastoral ministers are considered essential personnel since they are the only religious services available to the youth at this time. She said safety precautions and guidelines are subject to change at any moment. Currently, SYS volunteers are still not allowed access, and many of the youth have not seen their families for some time.
According to Lee, the biggest challenge and blessing for SYS is connecting with the youth, volunteers and the Catholic community.

Pre-pandemic, SYS staff and volunteers visited youth daily, and many volunteer events were held throughout the year, including in-services, retreats and socials. There also were presentation invitations to Catholic organizations, local parishes and Catholic schools.

“All of these programs were affected by the inability to meet in person, allowing SYS to utilize virtual communication, such as Zoom meetings, that were the catalysts for the weekly newsletters, better volunteer engagement and the apparatus for serving our little brothers and sisters,” said Lee.

“These advancements and adjustments are only made possible by the commitment of our volunteers and support from the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. SYS staff has been placed with greater demand in response to services, but it is with great honor that we are called to serve His children.”

Deacon Fernando Garcia, pastoral minister with SYS, said the pandemic restrictions have challenged staff and volunteers to create new ways to provide ministry to youth while keeping engaged with each other remotely.

“In the same manner that we strive to minister a sense of belonging and value to the youth, we also accompany our volunteers as they offer themselves in service,” said Deacon Garcia. “This is a direct response to the fulfillment of their call to ministry as we strive to provide a place for belonging, relevance and relationship, which is most needed in today’s climate.”

One of 60 ministries supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), SYS offers programs and services in local juvenile justice centers and facilities in three counties (Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria) as well as the Gulf Coast Trade Center in Montgomery County. The ages of those served range between 10 to 17 years old, but services are provided beyond based on need.

According to Deacon Garcia, SYS staff and volunteers have a passion for ministry and, more importantly, a passion for serving these marginalized youth in the Archdiocese. He believes these youth directly benefit from the DSF because the ministry’s staff and volunteers are able to provide restorative assistance and programming to the many youth and families served.

“Shunned by society and at times even from their own family, SYS provides a daily reminder to these youth that they are not alone and are loved as God’s children,” said Deacon Garcia. “To support SYS through the DSF not only supports our forgotten youth but also serves as a reminder to those who have forgotten their call to reach out to the lost.”

Associate director of SYS, Alejandra Maya, also believes the DSF allows SYS’s staff and volunteers to provide much-needed programs and services unavailable elsewhere in the Archdiocese.

“Our ministry has a small staff, but we work very hard to do as much as we can for our youth,” said Maya. “We appreciate every single one of our volunteers and the time, treasures and talents they share with this ministry. Although our volunteers have not been able to visit the youth since the beginning of the pandemic, they continue to stay active by virtually meeting with other volunteers and their coordinator, composing weekly newsletters that are sent to the youth and participating in SYS online events.”

One dedicated volunteer, Jim Pritchett, has been with SYS for three years as a Bible study leader, as well as a “Good Samaritan” — a volunteer that commits to visiting a young person for the entire duration of his or her detainment. Lee said this means a great deal to the youth because when no one comes to visit, this can be especially difficult for them.

Pritchett said volunteering with SYS has given him the opportunity to give back to those in need and exercise his Catholic faith.

“In getting to know the youth, I’ve learned a lot about people that come from totally different backgrounds than me, which I welcome and appreciate,” said Pritchett. “Not only because of the difficulties that they have had, but also their capabilities and strengths. They’re not forgotten — if they have hope, they can apply it to make fundamental changes in their life, which I think that’s kind of what we do at SYS.”

A Glance at Saintly Saturday

HOUSTON — Saintly Saturday, one of the DSF-funded programs of the Special Youth Services Ministry, was held on Nov. 7 online due to the pandemic.

Implemented in 2004, the same year Daniel Cardinal DiNardo became coadjutor bishop of the Archdiocese, it is an annual event held at the Harris County Leadership Academy.
The day provides an opportunity for youth to encounter Christ in new and exciting ways. With an ongoing theme of “From Sinner to Saint,” the programming includes, but is not limited to, fellowship, praise and worship, singing, contests, skits, spiritual discussions, and religious games. This is accomplished by a dynamic guest speaker and several generous volunteers. The event also provides an opportunity to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation before sharing in the celebration of Mass with Cardinal DiNardo. This year’s event looked quite different. Zoom provided the perfect conduit to make the event successful.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the program was offered virtually. “We were blessed with the opportunity to provide the event to two facilities and serving twice as many youths,” Special Youth Services Director Franchelle Lee said. “An additional blessing was the benefit of two speakers, Father Agustino Torres, C.F.R. (Corazon Puro), and Cesar Lozano (SYS volunteer).”

Lee said that although volunteers could not attend in person, they joined the celebration, letting the kids see them and cheer for them.

“After joining us for the opening prayer, they were able to view the event just as the kids did while praying for them and their day,” she said.

Lee said the day was a success, and the youth truly enjoyed it. This was best expressed in an appreciation email from Rosalind Carter, facility administrator of Harris County Leadership Academy and Burnett-Bayland Rehabilitation Center.

“We would like to personally thank everyone for the support during this past Saintly Saturday,” he said.

“Due to COVID-19, we were unable to have the kids participate in person, but that did not stop them from enjoying the program. You all made adjustments and were able to allow everyone to participate via Zoom with no major issues. A special thanks to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and everyone that showed up to the facility.

“Thank you for the snacks and the letters that were given to the kids during the program. We cannot express the gratitude we feel for you all. You continue to come into the facilities to encourage our youth and sprinkle a little Jesus throughout! The pandemic has not stopped you all and we truly cannot thank you enough for the support, generosity, grace and kindness.”