Sharing the Lord’s merciful embrace to at-risk, detained youth

May 10, 2016

HOUSTON — In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Special Youth Services (SYS) of the Archdiocese is dedicated to bringing God’s love and mercy to at-risk youth placed by the courts in juvenile justice centers, facilities and programs.

According to Franchelle Lee Stewart, director of SYS, approximately 60 staff members and volunteers have been excited to share in the Holy Father’s decree, “on a daily basis, SYS is called to show God’s love and mercy to youth,” said Lee Stewart. “Mercy is how we serve and in everything we do for youth and their families.” 

Deacon Dan Gilbert, SYS Pastoral Minister, agrees.

“The love and mercy of God is totally what this ministry is about,” said Deacon Gilbert. “The population that we minister to are kids who may be seen as lost, unreachable or unredeemable. We help the kids to understand that no matter what they have done, God loves them and will forgive them.”

“Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” (Matthew 19:13-14) 
SYS, one of 60 ministries supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), ministers to youth between the ages of 10 and 17 that have committed a crime and are placed by the courts to one of 34 juvenile detention centers. The ministry’s mission is to model the embrace of Christ through faith sharing, pastoral care and advocacy for these youth, as well as coordination and promotion of restorative services to at-risk youth and their families in six facilities located in Harris, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties.

For youth inside the detention centers, SYS offers weekly Bible studies, individual pastoral counseling, and celebration of communion and reconciliation. The ministry also offers special programs during the Christmas season, which can be a lonely and sad time for the kids that are away from their families. For at-risk youth and families outside the centers, group and parenting programs also are offered.

SYS’s largest annual event for detained youth is Saintly Saturday, offered in November, which encompasses the theme, “Sinner to Saint.” It features praise and worship provided by a Christian band, inspirational speakers, opportunities for prayer and reconciliation, and the highlight of the day, Mass with Daniel Cardinal DiNardo. 

“The kids really are impressed that someone as important as the Cardinal would take his time to come where they are locked up and celebrate Mass with them,” Deacon Gilbert said. “The kids who get to be the altar servers, gift bearers and readers are very honored.”

One youth who participated in the last Saintly Saturday shared these thoughts on the experience:
“I felt like from that point I had the choice to choose good or bad. I choose good. Everything has consequences. I learned that the Cardinal is the only cardinal in Texas. Deacon Dan (Gilbert) said very few people at his church have had the opportunity to serve with the Cardinal and I actually got to. I appreciate that all these people came to juvie for me. I still have a chance to change my life and they don’t see me as just a kid who is locked up. They still have hope in me. The Cardinal didn’t see us as delinquents in juvie. He gave us a chance and he blessed us.” 
Deacon Gilbert said an important component to serving these youth and families is to adjust SYS’s programs and services to meet the ever-changing needs.

“Sometimes we are limited by resources and personnel, but by the grace of God, we seem to meet the need at that time,” said Deacon Gilbert. “The Triple P program on positive parenting is a recent program that we have started because the need has grown. We also added a spiritual mentoring program called Street Saints for at-risk youth, and are considering expanding it to include youth inside the facilities since many do not receive visits from family or need more attention that is provided.”

Deacon Gilbert believes SYS is similar to other DSF-supported ministries in the Archdiocese that are able to meet their mission and goals because of this financial support. 

“I really do believe that the funds that come to us from DSF are meeting the needs of the least of His people as talked about in Matthew 25,” said Deacon Gilbert. “SYS has grown in scope and scale, so that we can successfully meet the needs of this clientele of youngsters that are neglected many times. We could not accomplish what we do without the generosity of those contributing to DSF.”

Lee Stewart said the DSF allows SYS to reach children within the 10 counties of the Archdiocese. 

“We are a small staff, but with the help of giving volunteers and generous DSF donations, the arms of the ministry reach thousands of youth daily,” she said.