Juvenile Detention Center, Houston, TX
The Sai Young Adults (YAs) of Houston have always been deeply committed to empowering and inspiring youths in our local communities. For 30 years, we partnered with the Children’s Protective Services (CPS) Kinder Emergency Shelter which provides a safe space for children, ages 11 to 17 years, temporarily removed from dangerous home conditions. Our time with the children, initially focused on games and activities, gradually evolved into a value-based program that instilled character and self-confidence to meet life’s demands.
The CPS experience gave us the motivation and confidence to initiate a similar program for youth in detention in the Harris County Juvenile Justice System. In the year 2015, we held several productive meetings with the Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) staff about the Sathya Sai Baba’s Education in Human Values Program (SSEHV) and its impact on youth development. Once the program was approved, each YA underwent a rigorous background check. The entire preparatory process took a whole year! Finally, we began the Human Values program at the Harris County Leadership Academy (HCLA) which houses about 60 boys and 20 girls.
Our monthly program involves 12 male and 12 female teens who participate in 90-minute sessions based on a specific theme and incorporating various activities, such as arts and crafts, team-building games, inspirational stories, group discussions, skits and motivational speakers. Prior to each session, we meet on conference calls and use social media (WhatsApp) to create lesson plans that apply human values to a youth-centric topic. We begin each workshop with introductions and collaboratively develop an Honor Code with the teens to create a safe space for all. An ice-breaker activity follows to get everyone talking, thinking, and excited about the session, before we transition into the topic of the day, by means of a story or a multi-media presentation. The teens break out into smaller groups to discuss how the values and life skills relate to them. At the close of the workshop, we request the teens to complete a survey, which solicits input about the effectiveness of each session and provides the teens a confidential manner of expressing themselves.
Since its inception in December 2015, the Human Values program has served about 250 teens between 13-18 years of age. Workshops are run gender-separated, with at least two facilitators, preferably of the same gender, in each workshop. What makes this program unique is our ability to interact and build relationships with the same teens over several months. As we gain experience as facilitators, effectively interact with the youths and modify our plans based on the teens’ feedback, the focus of our lesson plans has slowly shifted from being strictly value-focused to a greater emphasis on life skills and topics most relevant to the youth’s life situations. For instance, we provided a series of workshops on creating and maintaining healthy relationships, and effective communication skills to navigate tough situations. We also covered the topic of bullying, during which teens expressed their feelings about bullying, and we discussed ways to deal with aggressors. We addressed building healthy relationships with peers of the opposite gender and conducted an honest discussion on the physical and emotional consequences of sex for both groups. We also found ourselves discussing unplanned pregnancies and difficulties of raising a child without a job and sustainable livelihood. Teen parents were very receptive and eager to have someone listen to them without judgement. The JDC staff also encouraged us, emphasizing the necessity to have an open conversation about difficult topics. Based on popular request, the last few workshops focused on education and career development. Youths in the justice system face multiple barriers as they try to make up for lost time, attempt to succeed educationally and find a suitable career. We talked about various educational opportunities, building resumes, expanding their repertoire of skills, finding internship and job opportunities, and the need to be disciplined and diligent as they carve their own paths.
The program has had a transformative impact on the volunteers who attend the program. It is rather difficult not to become close with the teens. Many teens look forward to our presence every month and know us by our first names. They look to us as role models and are eager to participate in the sessions. There is lot of creative thinking that goes into developing the lesson plans and discovering methods of delivery that resonate with the teens. Each session is both deeply fulfilling and challenging. Over the past three years, we have become better instructors, learning to balance the desire to be friendly with the need for effective instruction. We have become more flexible and less dependent on lesson plans, relying more on the synergy that is created during discussion.
Volunteers have expressed how much they have been transformed by the service:
“I had my apprehensions before the first session about meeting inmates of a confined facility. When I met them, I was totally surprised since they were not different from any one of us. Like us, they also went through tough times in their lives but unfortunately, they ended up in the JDC due to a momentary lapse of judgement in many cases. Every one of them has latent talents. If guided properly, they could shine like anyone else in society. Interaction with the teens was an eye opener for me. I learnt as much from them as they did from our sessions, if not more. JDC service is a humbling experience for me. By discussing human values with them, I gained a deeper understanding of those values.”
“This service is very near and dear to my heart. It is a continuous learning opportunity, from understanding the mindset of the teenagers and the various backgrounds they come from, to learning firsthand the changes that love has brought to the environment. The staff within the facilities have reiterated that what we are doing is greater than we realize- planting seeds of hope, light, and future thinking.”
“The impact it has on me - I am still learning. It has taught me to be more understanding of another, and if I do not understand, I have learned to say, ‘I cannot relate to you, but I am willing to learn why you feel the way you do.’ Also, this service has helped me to become a better speaker, leader and presenter.”
“Although we do not have the same teens every time, as presenters, we are getting better in our delivery, have become more expansive of the love that we bring to them, and gained a deeper understanding of the lessons we teach. It is impacting the teens in various ways. They may not know us when we first walk in, but in the end, they either love us, admire us, have respect for us, or just plain think we are cool!”
Over the course of many years (CPS) and the last two years (JDC), the journey has been one filled with learning and has given us all the opportunity to expand in our consciousness. It has been a steep learning curve, refining our communication skills as we talk about sensitive topics with teens that are highly vulnerable. Yet, with time, it is become exceedingly clear that more than specialized skills, what one needs to effectively engage in this service is to listen without judgement, radiate love, practice what we preach, and realize that we are more similar than we are different.