Special Youth Services ministry focuses on children, not crimes

November 13, 2012

HOUSTON — It could be said that two Scriptures, Mark 10:14-15, “Let the children come to me,” and Matthew 25:36, “For I was… in prison and you visited me,” mirror the intention of the Special Youth Services ministry (SYS).

These Scriptures are encouragement, often interpreted to mean that everyone — young or old, sinner or saint — deserves the love of God and with hands of guidance, can become a better person.

That’s why the ministry, an outreach program of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, is helping to shape the lives of children by putting those who made mistakes back on the right track.

To do this, ministry staff and 45 volunteers spend countless hours during the evenings and on Saturdays not only embracing their Catholic faith, but sharing it.

The target of their attention is not a traditional one. These are youths between the ages of 10 and 17 who have committed crimes that include fighting, truancy, aggravated assault and even murder. Many are receiving treatment for drugs, sex offenses and psychological problems. They all are being held at juvenile detention facilities, where they have been sent by the courts.

But with God’s love and the ministry’s devotion to its cause, these youths can have a brighter future.

“Many people look at our children and just think, ‘Lock them up,’ but they are children who have made a mistake,” said Franchelle Lee Stewart, Director of SYS.

“They have a right to become productive members of our society,” she added. “And I believe that can happen with the transforming power of the love of God.”

That transformation takes place through Bible studies, music, games, prayer and one-on-one pastoral ministry, among other things.

Volunteers and ministry staff rotate weekly visits between four juvenile detention facilities in Harris County. They are the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center, Harris County Youth Village, Harris County Leadership Academy and Burnett Bayland Rehabilitation Center.

In addition to that, they also visit a juvenile facility at the Fort Bend Juvenile Probation Department, counsel at-risk youth, and hold Saturday workshops for children who previously lived at juvenile facilities. Saturday workshops, which require parents to also attend, teach skills related to family relationships and communication, as well as other coping mechanisms. Parents are also required to attend the workshops, which are done in conjunction with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.

Last weekend, the ministry held its annual Saintly Saturday event from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Burnett Bayland Rehabilitation Center. There were numerous activities and a Mass, celebrated by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, ended festivities.

“The day serves as a culmination of the ministry’s aspirations; to model the embrace of Christ through music, prayer, worship, pastoral care, Bible study and faith sharing to the at-risk youth,” said Lee Stewart. 

The annual event, formerly named Super Saturday, has been held by the ministry since 2004.

“The name change was an opportunity to encourage youth to live from sinner to saint, as our faith does call us to live a saintly life,” she added.

One thing the ministry tries to do is bring a sense of peace to youth living at the juvenile facilities. Many harbor guilt about the crimes they’ve committed. They don’t know how to forgive themselves or how to interact with God and find healing.

“They wonder if God forgives them and part of this annual celebration is to remind them that God is forgiving and His abundant love is open and ready to give them forgiveness,” Lee Stewart said.
A problem often faced by these young people is the misconception that they don’t deserve a second chance in life.

But Deacon Dan Gilbert, pastoral minister for SYS, is not necessarily trying to change the unfair misconception, but rather change the child.

“I think this program exemplifies what Jesus told us to do and that is to visit those who are imprisoned,” Deacon Gilbert said. 

“A lot of the time people see these kids as ‘monsters’ who are shown on the news, but when you really get to know them, they are still children,” he said.
“We don’t go into these facilities to deal with their crimes. We go in to deal with their souls and spirituality.”

Deacon Gilbert is no stranger to working with juveniles with a criminal background. He has worked with programs for that particular population of youth for more than 30 years and has been with SYS for 16 years.

“Kids who are there for shoplifting are no different than children who are there for murder,” Deacon Gilbert continued. “They are all children of God and deserve the forgiveness and love that is given through Christ.”

For anyone wanting more information about the SYS or would like to become a volunteer, call 713-741-8739.

“You never know what gifts you have that can help,” Lee Stewart said.