Innovative Special Youth Services team pivots outreach during pandemic

August 18, 2020

The Special Youth Services (SYS) ministry team meets daily via the Zoom app to pray for the incarcerated youth, their families, the juvenile probation staff and volunteers. Top from left are Deacon Dan Gilbert and SYS Assistant Director Alejandra Maya Garza. Bottom from left are SYS Director Franchelle Lee and Deacon Fernando Garcia. (Photos courtesy of Special Youth Services)

HOUSTON — The Covid-19 pandemic caused many essential outreach groups to think outside of the box. The Special Youth Services (SYS) ministry of the Archdiocese stepped up to the challenge and continues to serve at-risk youth and their families in grassroots and innovative ways.

Working with youth ages 10 to 17, SYS models Christ’s embrace through pastoral care, advocacy, restorative services, and faith sharing in local juvenile justice centers. When the pandemic intensified, visitation to all facilities was suspended until further notice.

Director Franchelle Lee had to help redirect her team and volunteers to do their ministry in new ways. One gift was that the SYS Pastoral Ministers, Deacon Fernando Garcia and Deacon Dan Gilbert, were deemed essential workers. This allowed them to visit youth in the Harris County Juvenile facilities.

“Because the youth must maintain social distancing in the facilities, we are doing mostly one-on-one pastoral counseling,” Lee said. “This is an extremely tough time for the kids. They have not had any family visits since the initial city closure. These challenging circumstances give the pastoral ministers the opportunity to be the face of love, just as Jesus taught us.”

Deacon Gilbert said being away from their family can be very depressing.

“Their outlook on life can be very dim,” he said. “Helping them to see how God can get them through the situation they find themselves in indeed does bring joy and hope to them. We never build false hope in them, but we help them to see that if they go through this leaning on God, He will comfort them.”

With daily Zoom meetings for their staff and constant prayer for the youth, their families, juvenile probation staff and volunteers, everyone has had to be creative. SYS is beginning to ramp up their social media presence to educate others about social justice initiatives and engage volunteers. Also, SYS is coordinating Grab-N-Go activities for youth with instructions distributed via a special YouTube channel.

Mixing new media and old methods, the SYS staff and volunteers are thinking resourcefully to stay connected.

“Our volunteers have really answered the call to change,” Lee said. “Instead of visiting facilities weekly, they meet on Zoom as a group to discuss the newsletter, pray and check-in.”

Weekly newsletters among the volunteers has become a mini-life line to keep everyone engaged as they share personal Bible reflections, activities and Christian songs.
SYS Assistant Director Alejandra Maya Garza said what volunteers used to do in person they now do in print for the youth.

“They provide the Sunday readings, and volunteers take turns writing one reflection and send them to their volunteer coordinator — a deacon or diaconate candidate — who puts them all together. It includes religious images, prayers and activities such as a word search,” Garza said. “Each facility has been kind enough to print out the sheet and distribute it to the youth.”

Deacon Gilbert and Deacon Garcia continue to provide spiritual support for the youth as well as distribute snacks and goodies that have been donated. With a generous donation of composition books, word search books, and puzzle books for every child in every facility, Deacon Garcia said many of the youth were excited simply to have something that they could call their own.

“It was a humbling experience to see the great joy that such a small gift could bring as they could hold their book and say, ‘This belongs to me,’” Garcia said. “Our ministry serves these youth unconditionally and, through the grace of God, is able to offer these youth a sense of their true worth by speaking to them of the redeeming love of Christ.”

Even though the SYS team continues to think through creative ways to do future events, Lee said it’s important to remain flexible and is proud of having held the SYS Annual Staff Appreciation.

“We minister in five different counties at seven different facilities,” she said. “Most of this is made possible by the amazing juvenile probation staff. We daily work in collaboration and comradery with over 450 juvenile probation staff annually. Staff appreciation gives us the opportunity to let them know how much we appreciate and respect each and every one of them. So, this year we had to be creative in making sure things were packaged, individualized and safe.”

Garza said she appreciates the understanding and prayers of all involved.

“Our volunteers have been patient, loyal and active,” Garza said. “We believe we have such a special group of volunteers who embrace the opportunity to belong to such an important ministry. We miss them, and we send out our love and prayers to them.”

To learn more about SYS, visit the Archdiocesan website at