Setting the Youth Free
By Julieta Hernandez
By: Julieta Hernandez Photos by: Lillian Reitz
On a Friday morning, volunteers, friends, and family gathered to celebrate the graduation of a juvenile inmate. There was a gentle excited chatter and the graduate’s favorite party snacks stacked up high. Before the podium, the graduate thanked his mentors, friends, teachers… some in the audience teared up over the inside jokes.
We all talk about second chances, but there are times when a second chance can change a life. For the youth of Nueces County, a second chance means a clean slate, a fresh start they didn’t fully get before.
Everyone was proud; cards were opened, hugs were exchanged, and gifts were given. Gifts specifically curated for the graduate’s walk outside of these doors, beginning with some new shoes. Linda Pate, mentor and longtime volunteer, smiled proudly. “They don’t have any other shoes but the white ones they’re required to wear. The new shoes are a big deal.”
The Nueces County Juvenile Justice Volunteers (NCJJV) break a lot of stereotypes. Rather than a boot camp, it’s more really intense counseling. Instead of a jail center, it’s an education center, a renewal program that wants to see its students succeed and keep away from anything other than success.
Kids who are incarcerated or on probation are offered the tools to move forward as fulfilled adults, instead of being shamed or forgotten. That’s only one aspect of the countless goals for this program and its volunteers. “They do have value and worth,” says Rebecca Mohat, or Becki. “No matter what they’ve done, they can move on from this, and have a good life.”
Mohat has volunteered her time to the Nueces County Juvenile Justice Volunteer program for more than five years, and is now the president.
The NCJJV program, which is constantly looking for ways to expand, has reached hundreds of incarcerated youth. The volunteers spend their time and specialized training to help kids with their unique situations.
The NCJJV has enthusiastically introduced a tattoo removal program as well: Uninked & Set Free helps minors remove visible tattoos, including those that are associated with gangs or sex trafficking. With the latest laser technology and medical volunteers involved, this sub-program has the potential to be life-changing for the children who really need it.
“Of course, no child should have to live with their trafficker’s name. We will remove those,” Mohat says.
The One Heart program is also another effective tool for the NCJJV’s mission, including but definitely not limited to “job training, life skills, counseling, legal assistance, medical/dental care, organizational skills, and employment opportunities.” With provable results that the NCJJV has been fortunate in realizing, the One Heart Program is another helping hand in guaranteeing a future for the youth who participate in it.
This is how the incarcerated youth makes it through the “system” – with a support system that sees them through their last day, and shows up to their graduation.
“There’s kind of a difference when they know you’re there because you want to be there,” says Mohat, “not because you’re just getting paid to deal with them. It does make a huge difference in their attitude.”
The program is ever-growing and in constant need of volunteers. The current volunteers are also scouting donations for hygiene product donations, as well as clothing items. Visit their official website to learn more about their different programs: NCJJV.com.