Smith County Juvenile Services Director Ross Worley plans to name the recently completed vocational building after the man who helped him with its vision.
The late David Spencer was a community services officer and became the vocational instructor for Juvenile Services when he was diagnosed with cancer. Worley said they worked together on coming up with the idea for the vocational program before Spencer passed away a couple of years ago.
The vocational program includes woodworking, auto mechanics, welding, gardening, and life skills classes.
A metal building was renovated and expanded to house a wood shop, as well as an auto mechanic and welding shop. Grant money was used for the construction, and a fence was built around the facility so kids in the H.O.P.E. Academy, a residential program on the Juvenile Services campus, could participate.
Worley said they plan to name it the David Spencer Vocational Trades Building in memory of his friend.
David Peters had retired from owning his own construction contracting business when he learned about what Worley was working on. He became the vocational instructor and community service coordinator for the department in April 2015, was promoted to supervisor in February 2016, and was instrumental in the construction project.
“Becoming the vocational instructor was a way to do construction and give back and teach the kids,” Peters said. “I have always loved construction.”
Peters has worked with the juvenile probationers on several projects, including building cedar benches and convertible benches, which can be turned into picnic tables; pouring concrete, building stairs, walls, sheds and other items for the Juvenile Services Department; and constructing ramps for disabled people at homes throughout Smith County with the Texas Ramp Association. They are now working to refurbish old chairs taken out of the Smith County Courthouse.
Also brought into the vocational program were Jody Gooch, auto mechanic and welding teacher; Rafael Vera, horticulture/gardening instructor; and Karla Bautista, who teaches life skills such as financial and career goal planning and helps kids prepare for college and the workforce. All four instructors are classified as community service vocational instructors.
In fiscal year 2016, kids participated in the vocational programs 480 times, which included auto class, welding, building trades, gardening and life skill classes. So far, in fiscal year 2017, they have had kids participate 244 times.
Worley said they have already been teaching the kids on probation but this summer, they will run the first full course load with the H.O.P.E. Academy residents.
Peters said participating in the vocational classes will allow the H.O.P.E. residents to leave their pods and classrooms.
H.O.P.E. (Helping Others Pursue Excellence) Academy, is a six-to-nine-month residential program for male juvenile offenders, focusing on behavior modification and family/parent relationships. The children work with probation officers, counselors and volunteers, including a chaplain.
Since the Start of H.O.P.E. in January 2015, there have been 24 residents. Five kids are currently in the program, 16 have successfully completed it and three were discharged early.
Rafael Vera has been with Juvenile Services for seven years, and joined the vocational instructors team in February 2016 to teach the kids how to garden and landscape.
They started with one very tiny garden and now have four gardens and two greenhouses. They grow everything from onions, potatoes, squash, carrots and peppers to watermelons, cantaloupe and pomegranates. The probationers under Vera’s supervision also help with the grounds and flower beds.
Vera learned how to garden from his father when he was a child. He has worked in vineyards in California and grows vegetables and fruits on his own farm, where he also has chickens and goats.
He said not all of the kids he teaches are interested in gardening but some ask to take plants home so they can start their own gardens. Vera enjoys seeing the children take an interest in growing their own food, he said.
“A lot of kids don’t know anything about plants and only see food at the store,” Vera said.
This week, they picked garlic and onions.
The juveniles on probation, as well as their parents, get to take some of the fruit and vegetables home.
“We serve a ton of indigent families,” Worley said. “There are so many of these kids who don’t have this stuff available to them.”
Every year, they add the amounts of vegetables and fruits they grow, Vera said.
Worley said the gardening program was started by them buying seeds. Vera makes seedlings in a greenhouse before transplanting them in to the gardens.
“There’s very little-to-no cost to it except keeping them watered,” Worley said, adding that grant funds were used to build the greenhouses.
All of the vocational instructors work together with various projects.
Peters said inside the wood shop, the kids will soon build a cart to haul the vegetables into the Juvenile Attention Center to give away to parents.
Vera mixes up leaves collected on the 25-acre property with the soil to make the garden perform better.
Sawdust will be piped out of the wood shop into a wood shed behind the building, built by the students, to also be used in the gardens, Peters said.