Dotty L., community relations coordinator at Gainesville State School in Gainesville, Texas, loves working with high-school age youths. The reason can be summed up in one word: hope. “To me, it is the difference in working with juveniles and adults. These boys have their whole lives ahead of them. They can come here, learn, grow and change their lives,” Luera said. “It is my firm belief that volunteers are the biggest part of that.”
Luera began her career with the Texas Youth Commission, now the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), 10 years ago when she was hired as a volunteer coordinator and chaplain designee at the Corsicana State Home. Prior to joining Corsicana, Luera was a minister of education and youths for nine years at a church in Richardson, Texas. “I have volunteered and have worked with volunteers my whole life,” she said.
While at Corsicana, Luera made a huge impact: She created the facility’s first-ever Summer Fun Program; championed Corsicana’s Epiphany religious weekend retreat for girls (an event that used to be for boys only); tripled volunteer participation; and raised more than $20,000 in funds to benefit the youths housed at the facility. Luera recalls the day that she got the idea for the Summer Fun Program. “We had a dorm of really young boys — some were 10 years old. One day a little boy who looked like Opie on ‘Andy Griffith’ was talking to me. He said, ‘It’s almost summer’! He had this huge grin, but suddenly his little face fell and he said, ‘It doesn’t matter here. Since I messed up there won’t be any summer,’” she said. “It broke my heart.”
So Luera set up fun activities and lined up volunteers for every Monday evening that summer. The kids practiced fishing, made ice cream and even had a watermelon seed spitting contest. “The boys loved the program so much that they did not want to miss it,” she said. The incident rate decreased by 75 percent for the three months of “Summer Fun” compared to the three months before the program began. “I was so elated. I am a kid at heart and love summer too. I remember growing up and enjoying all those same things … I also knew that many of our youths have not gotten to enjoy those simple pleasures,” she said. “A 75 percent decrease in incidents was a wonderful added bonus.”
Three years ago, Luera moved on to Gainesville State School, which is nearly twice the size of Corsicana and has a much larger volunteer program. The facility has approximately 350 registered volunteers and another 80 in the process. There are also approximately 600 volunteers who come once or twice during the year. “Youths who have worked closely with volunteers, whether in mentoring or in groups (such as volunteer-led guitar classes, grief support groups and substance abuse groups) do best at progressing through the treatment program and then successfully reentering society,” she said.
During her time at Gainesville, Luera has increased the number of mentors at the facility from four to 36. Mentors meet one-on-one with an assigned youth for four to eight hours each month at the facility’s visitation center. “It is likely the most important role for volunteers in the agency. Youths with mentors have lower rates of recidivism. They do better in the treatment program. They feel better about themselves,” Luera said. “Some of our youths have never had a visitor — those are the youths that I match up with a volunteer first.”
When she arrived in Gainesville, Luera also started the Clothes Closet, which offers dress and casual clothes, toiletries and a duffle bag for youths who are getting ready to be released. “Many of our boys have nothing, so it is a wonderful, wonderful program. The pride on their face is unmistakable,” Luera said.
In addition to working tirelessly for the youths at Gainesville, Luera managed to find time to earn her certification in volunteer administration in 2011. “Currently, she has been the only TJJD Community Relations Coordinator to do so,” Gwan Hawthorne, superintendent at Gainesville State School, said. “This is a demonstration of her talent, her skills and her hard work. Whatever the challenge, Luera will give 100 percent and excel.”
“Luera is truly deserving of this recognition, and her work has changed hundreds of youths’ lives,” Hawthorne said. “She is a tremendous asset to TJJD, the field of juvenile corrections and the field of volunteer administration.”