LEE: SYS adjusts to reach special youth during the pandemic

January 12, 2021

“None of us can think we are exempt from concerns for the poor and for social justice,” Pope Francis wrote in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

Special Youth Services (SYS) answers this call by promoting and coordinating pastoral outreach to at-risk youth and their families, providing pastoral care to youth remanded to juvenile detention centers and facilities.

The ministry serves youth ages 10 to 17 years old: 77% boys and 23% girls. They reside throughout the 10 counties of the Archdiocese and are composed of varying family units, races, ethnicities, economic and religious backgrounds.

The youth attend public schools, charter schools, private/parochial schools and homeschooling. Societal stereotypes of detained youth are of undeserving future criminals.

his is not always the case. Teenagers do what teenagers do: make mistakes. No matter the economic access, religion, race, or demographic location, teens express impulsive behavior, primarily described as dramatic, risky and impulsive. Youth can be detained for committing any offense, the same as an adult. Offenses vary from theft, evading arrest, robbery, assault and murder. Due to the county’s population size, most of our youth are detained at the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.

Since 1955, parochial ministries have been present in Harris County Juvenile Detention Center. Over the next few decades, SYS evolved with the primary objective of continuing the provision of pastoral services with the additional objective of ministering to individual youth in crisis at the request of detention center staff. Shortly after, SYS developed many new skills programming that incorporated Christian themes.

The programs encompassed social and life skills, anger management, parenting classes, cultural enrichment and conflict resolution. Many continue today.

In recent times, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo’s support for the youth and SYS staff has been a catalyst for increased service.
SYS offers programs for parents and youth designed to assist in communication skills and spiritual formation.

Programs we offer youth are bereavement, Bible study, Catholic group, community services opportunities, court and legislative advocacy, mentoring programs, pastoral care, pastoral visitation, pastoral counseling, family workshops, sacramental preparation, Holy and holiday celebrations, spiritual direction, Sunday services and ongoing volunteer formation and training.

With a 65-year relationship with juvenile probation and quickly approaching 52 years of service to the community, 2020 was the most challenging for SYS. The COVID-19 pandemic ceased visitation to facilities in Texas, initiating new and creative ways of ministering to youth. In lieu of Bible study, SYS volunteers implemented a weekly newsletter, which included reflections, activities, songs and prayers. SYS also implemented an official Facebook page and a YouTube channel.

The annual events and religious celebrations went virtual. These changes and adaptations will continue long past this challenging year. SYS has future plans to increase parental and familial support, increase and continue collaborations with Archdiocesan ministries, continue collaborations with the local, Texas and national chaplaincies and partners, and establish more mentoring programs through restorative justice initiatives.

SYS is annually responsible for over 5,000 youth, and nothing would be possible without the help and dedication of SYS volunteers. These services are possible because of volunteer compassion and dedication.

Their talents and gifts are at the forefront of the ministry. SYS provides opportunities for volunteers to fulfill, implement, utilize, and practice their Catholic faith. Our volunteers are a diverse group of amazing people from all over the Archdiocese: laypersons, clergy, religious, seminarians and diaconate candidates.

Volunteers from every generation come together to serve the youth. Most are devout Catholics from 72 local parishes. We are an ecumenical ministry serving Catholics and people of all religious faiths.

Not only do our volunteers reflect diversity in faith, but they are also diverse in gender, age, race and ethnicity. If you are 21 or over and would like more information on ways you can help, please give us a call at 713-741-8739.

Franchelle Lee is the director of Special Youth Services. (Photo courteys of Special Youth Services)