Ecumenical ReVision Provides Hope - and Pizza - to Troubled Teens

Date Posted: 7/11/2016

Original story from the Houston Chronicle

An eyesore glistening in the sun, Texas' razor wire-girded Clemens Unit radiates hard times. It's a maximum-security lockup, and the life it offers its hardened adult inmates is one of cheerless cells and labor in its steaming fields.

Today in a room deep in the prison complex, though, a very unlikely scene is unfolding: Two dozen jumpsuit-clad teens scarf down pizza and fold sheets of paper for an origami art project. Others, perusing a list of "ice breaker questions," ponder which of the "Seven Dwarves" they most resemble and what it would take to make them laugh out loud.

The teens are Texas' toughest - young offenders serving adult sentences for murder, robbery and other felony offenses. The adults in the room are ecumenical volunteers from ReVision, a Houston ministry dedicated to salvaging troubled young lives.

The event is the monthly "First Friday" gathering, and if there is an occasion for high spirits at Clemens, this may be it.

"What we're trying to do," said program CEO Charles Rotramel, "is build a community of kinship. We're trying to connect with kids on the edge, kids who have no connection with people who care about them. We want to try to move their lives in a positive direction."

Founded in 2011 by St. Luke's United Methodist Church, St. Martin's Episcopal Church and the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, ReVision deploys more than 300 volunteers from more than a dozen congregations to work with distressed teens.

"We address the entire school-to-prison pipeline," Rotramel said, offering help to teens in trouble at school, in juvenile detention, on probation or - at the most extreme - certified for imprisonment as adults.

Professional outreach workers round out the ReVision team in helping once-incarcerated teens return to school and community.

Volunteers now work with middle or high school students in the Spring Branch and Katy school districts, and plans call for possible expansion to Houston schools. Often gang members, teens in the program typically have been expelled from school, assigned to alternative schools or are on brink of criminality.

Sixty-four of 65 such youngsters mentored by ReVision volunteers still are in school, Rotramel said.

For teens in the community, the group regularly hosts softball games, soccer matches and break-dance competitions. For those at Clemens, it stages First Fridays and arranges pen pal relationships and frequent visits from mentors. Currently, 26 minors are serving adult sentences at Clemens, the state's only such teen facility.

ReVision pastor, the Rev. Gregg Taylor, said volunteers, who range from their 20s to their 90s, receive intensive training before interacting with the teens.

"Every volunteer," he said, "knows what they're getting into, who the kids are, what the risks and protections are and why they're doing what they're doing. … There are no special requirements other than being a person who's willing to care, to be someone to a kid who has no one."

Rotramel said teen inmates - products of dysfunctional families and violent neighborhoods - often tell volunteers that, prior to encountering ReVision, their lives had been devoid of adult concern and kindness.

ReVision volunteers describe themselves as the "hands of Christ," and insights they gain in working with troubled youth have shaped the organization's intervention strategies.

One such innovation is a teen library at Clemens scheduled to open later this summer.

The plan began as volunteers Edward and Suzanne Davis struggled to aid a teen serving 45 years for murder. Suzanne Davis, a retired high school librarian, finally offered the inmate a spiritually themed book, one of a series crafted to resonate with adolescents.

"He wasn't a reader," she said, "but he read it fairly quickly."

Soon other volunteers shipped books to incarcerated teens. The inmates' enthusiasm challenged Rotramel's initial skepticism.

"They devoured all of this," he said. "They wrote back. They asked questions. We began to take this idea seriously."

Prison officials were receptive to the plan. Teen inmates suggested 450 titles, all but 100 of which were approved by Clemens brass. Anonymous donors provided the $4,000 needed for the purchase.

"We needed to find things that would occupy their minds and instruct them, to get them beyond the point of where they are," Davis said of the young offenders. "Many are depressed. They think their lives are over."

While acknowledging the seriousness of the problems facing teens, ReVision leaders express confidence that their efforts will achieve positive results.

"Every kid has the capacity for change," Rotramel said. "We've seen this happen. We have many, many examples. We believe this is what we're called to do. Everyone deserves to have hope in their lives."

Added Taylor, "The purpose of this is not to reduce recidivism. The point is not to have some metric of 'success,' for them to get out and be employed. If that happens, great. But the point is to establish a relationship to cultivate human dignity and worth. All people are children of God."

While volunteers develop guarded affection for Clemens' teen offenders, they are not blind to the pain the inmates' crimes have caused.

"We believe in the prison system," Suzanne Davis said. "We believe that people should have to pay for their crimes. But a lot get out. What are you going to do with them? Personally, I would like to see them come out whole."

ReVision's prison activities drew praise from Clemens Warden Cornelius Smith, who called the program "a blessing," and Stacy Rhodes, who oversees the unit's programs for teen-adult offenders.

ReVision, Rhodes said, complements counseling and educational efforts provided through his office. "They spend a lot of time and resources on this," he said. "I have nothing but good things to say."

At Clemens on this Friday, adult inmates are lunching on chili, rice and beans. At the ReVision session, the teen offenders, seated at circular tables with program volunteers, feast on Domino's best. The fact that the session resembles a church youth group meeting is deliberate, Rotramel said.

One youth, a 17-year-old Dallas prisoner serving five years for aggravated robbery, said he eagerly anticipates the monthly ReVision sessions.

"We have a good time," he said. "They care about people."

Taylor steps to a podium to take up the subject of scars.

His grandmother's scarred leg. His football scars, and those from double hip replacements. The emotional scars from a childhood spent with an alcoholic father.

The significance of his discourse hangs in the air. The young prisoners nonchalantly focus on their origami, but they listen.

"We all have scars people can see," Taylor told the teens, "and we have scars no one really ever sees. … God lets us touch the wounds we all have.

"Scars tell the stories of our lives.

"They tell of what we've overcome and what we still have to overcome."

Original story from the Houston Chronicle