When children do the crime, it’s time for love

November 12, 2013

HOUSTON — Could it be true that the only person who has visited her since she was sentenced by the courts to a juvenile detention center for a crime she committed was a volunteer from the Special Youth Services (SYS) ministry? And, maybe, through these weekly one-on-one visits to her cell, she has truly grasped for the first time in her life what it means to be loved and forgiven by God?

This is an example of the youth that are seen weekly by 60 volunteers and staff members of SYS, a ministry of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston that is funded by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF). 

Their mission is to minister to these youth, between the ages of 10 and 17, who have committed a crime and are placed by the courts to one of 34 juvenile detention centers in Harris County. This includes Harris County Juvenile Detention Center, Harris County Youth Village, Harris County Leadership Academy and Burnett Bayland Rehabilitation Center. 

SYS believes that even though these young people may have made a mistake, from shoplifting to aggravated assault to even murder, each are children of God who deserve the forgiveness and love that is given through Christ. SYS tries to make that connection with them to Christ through Bible studies, music, games, prayer and one-on-one pastoral ministry. 

In addition, ministers 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 and their families. 

Earlier this month, SYS held its annual Saintly Saturday event at Burnett Bayland Rehabilitation Center. There were numerous activities and a Mass, celebrated by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, ended festivities.

The ministry also serves as an advocate for these families and children by bringing attention to the underlying issues that surround delinquent behavior with city and state legislative leaders who carry a heavy responsibility in making vital decisions about these issues. This includes school discipline alternatives, funding of community-based mental health issues, food insecurity and hunger. 

“There are 2,800 children affected today by food insecurity in the county, which means they don’t have access to enough nutritious food,” said Franchelle Lee Stewart, director of SYS. “Without proper nutrition, access to proper physical and mental health care, and educational opportunities, children have difficulty in productive and faithful citizenship. Our volunteers and staff are so blessed to be instruments of God’s garden to plant the seeds of God’s kingdom with these young people through our programs and services.”

Deacon Gilbert Rodriguez, a volunteer with SYS, says that he marvels at how much need there is to minister to these young people. While they are incarcerated due to their own fault, he believes a lot of the responsibility for their failures is lack of structure in their homes.

“Our young people’s ability to reform does not lie solely in our justice system while incarcerated; no, it lies within each and every one of us,” Rodriguez said. “We need to lead by example at every instance of our lives. Visiting the children in these detention centers can provide an avenue of hope, but the hard work lies in our society.”

He said that they have to go out and serve these youngsters by being Christ to them — go to where they live and go to school. He believes it’s the absence of God in their everyday life that propels them down the path of destruction.

“It’s hard for the ‘un-Churched’ who come from broken homes, single-parent families where mom or dad is at work all the time, which causes unsupervised upbringing, to find God when their bellies are empty or they have no place to call home,” Rodriguez said. “These young people and their families need to find an ‘out’ to their broken world once they have served their time. I have come to believe that most are a product of their environment, and without a family structure and spiritual role models, they will become repeat offenders.”

By helping these youngsters to love themselves and look to God for help, Rodriguez believes SYS is a vital ministry that helps them to break the cycle of crime.

Another volunteer, Glenn Jackson, said that the first thing he does each week when he visits the young men at a detention center is to look them in the eye, shake their hand and ask how they are doing. 

Many are surprised that someone would care about their well-being, and after several weeks of consecutive visits, they tend to open up more and talk about their home life. 

Jackson said most live with their grandmother, aunt or mother, and rarely have a positive male influence in their lives. He said it’s humbling to hear about their dreams for the future.

“I would have thought that their dreams would be about riches and a lavish lifestyle, but most talk about learning a trade so they can get a good job and take care of their family,” Jackson said. “We talk about where God is in their lives, and for some, God is a real presence and for others not so much. Some say they don’t know how to pray and don’t go to Bible study and others say they pray daily and enjoy the Bible study.”

Regardless, Jackson said that they will ask him to pray with them before they go back to their units. He holds their hands and prays for their well-being and their families. They always ask if he’s coming back, and while that is the plan, he ensures them that even if he can’t make it next week, he is constantly praying for them. 

“I have worked with boys most of my adult life as a baseball or football coach and in Boy Scouts, but never in a situation like this,” Jackson said. “My wife and I talked about it at length (when I got this assignment), and she told me that maybe this was where God wanted me to be, and maybe she was right. I feel I have grown immensely since I started this ministry, and I look forward to going each week now, but I wish we didn’t need these places.”

Jackson said he feels God has truly blessed him by leading him to this ministry, which is teaching him more than he ever thought possible and opened his eyes and heart in a way he never imagined.

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