Border Hope

Spending the day with Maverick County Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Bruce Ballou

The home of the new Border Hope Restorative Justice Center

It’s a November morning and Maverick County Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Bruce Ballou is standing in the middle of an abandoned military complex in Maverick County that will soon be the home of the new Border Hope Restorative Justice Center. It’s a big day: the groundbreaking of the facility’s community garden, which the center is paying for via a $35,000 grant.

Ballou is excited about the garden, but it’s just one small part of Maverick County’s extraordinary vision of what the Border Hope Restorative Justice Center is and will be: a community-based non-secure residential facility for the area’s juveniles who have gotten themselves in trouble for drug smuggling and their connections with violent cartels in Mexico.

“We were spending almost $400,000 a year to house our kids in other counties,” Ballou says, adding that the county decided it’d be money better spent at home. He envisions a place where juveniles stay round-the-clock with structured 16-hour days designed to give kids the tools they need to improve their skills, thinking, lives and community. Eventually, Ballou pictures juveniles learning how to garden, fix automobiles, do construction work and even tend to cattle, all within the center’s fences.

Right now, the center is something Ballou, his staff and his kids — the ones under his supervision — are building from the ground up. Staff and juveniles have hacked down shrubs and trees, painted over graffiti and installed roofs and shingles. “We’re building every bit of it ourselves,” Ballou says, proud. “We’ve got lots of pictures of kids hanging sheet rock.”

There are three buildings in the fenced-off area that will soon be living quarters, a cafeteria and school, a workshop and garage, Ballou says. Another building is part of a larger three-to-five year plan to extend the center’s facilities for use by other counties. (Already, the Border Hope project is a regional venture encompassing Maverick, Zavala and Dimmit counties.) The entire military complex itself is about 3,000 acres.

“We came out to this property and the whole outside was just grown out. You could hardly see this building,” Ballou says, referring to the long, white dormitory that will soon house bunkbeds for 18. “When we got here, this building was knee deep in waste and trash. This was an old supply depot for the base that was out here.” 

The old supply depot, as seen in November, will soon be a dormitory for 18 juveniles.

he county chose the military base because it was already owned by the county, had access to water and sewage and its isolation from the community, Ballou said. 

But the base is well-known to the area’s juveniles, who had used the abandoned buildings as gathering places to drink, smoke and leave their spray-painted markings. The damage meant that a lot of work was necessary to get the facility up and running. 

Unfortunately, Maverick County is one of the poorest counties in the state. Its 2010, its poverty rate was at 39.9 percent. Only 53 percent of the youth were graduating high school, and the median household income was at just $27,710. Things are looking up, however: in 2011, its poverty rate declined to 31.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it the 13th poorest county in the state, though median household income was fifth lowest at just $28,502.  

“The roof is paid for by a construction company here in town,” Ballou says. “The plumbing, the showers, the bathrooms, and we’ll have sinks on the other side of here that involve sewer lines, all that was donated by a plumbing company in San Antonio.”

A nearby building, part of the larger military base, shows signs of abandonment and wear and tear similar to what the old supply depot looked like when the project first got underway.

Ballou appreciates that the Border Hope center will live on an old military base, partly because of its historical significance to the community and partly because of his own military background and what it did for him.

“Part of who I am is I was in the military, and while I didn’t like the military, I knew that it provided me with some structure and some boundaries,” Ballou says, adding that he’s already implemented a summer boot camp for kids currently on probation. “It’s not yell-in-your-face kind of stuff, but just regimented, structured, military discipline. That helped me when I was 18 years old and it’s helped a lot of the kids that I’ve worked with over the years.”

The boot camp, which requires kids to meet early in the morning for physical fitness regimens, community service projects and cognitive redevelopment programming, has reduced juvenile crime by 35 percent, Ballou says.  

He points out the old bowling alley and movie theater and other nearby landmarks.

“There are people in the community that worked out here as kind of private support staff, maintenance and groundskeepers and they are still around. I talked to an old fellow that was stationed here and what he said was they trained first time pilots out here,” he adds. “We’ve got one of the longest runways out in South Texas here, in fact, you could land a big C-40 plane out here because it’s so long. I talked to one of the old pilots probably about six months ago and of course he told me all kinds of stories. We’ve got some pictures of this place from the ‘60s.”

An old fire station that sits next to the supply depot is soon to be a woodworking and vehicle mechanic shop.

Across from the soon-to-be vegetable garden is another building, an officer’s barracks that has not yet been touched. It is almost scary; the walls and ceiling have been destroyed, spray painted graffiti is every where and a giant — humungous, enormous, man-sized, there is almost no word too big — bee hive sits at its entrance. Fortunately, the cold weather has the bees resting. 
“This is how the building that we’re working on now, this is how it looked,” Ballou says. “We’re going to take this and redo this.”

A lot of people have helped and are helping with Ballou’s vision, especially missionary groups that no longer feel safe travelling to Mexico. Ballou says he’s partnered with missionary groups of multiple faiths — Methodist, Baptist, Catholic — who also work in the community’s most impoverished neighborhoods. The groups have donated money, labor and materials to the cause, and Ballou sees faith as being an important part of the youths’ weekly lives while staying at the center.

“They’ll have volunteer services,” he says. “One week it’ll be Methodist, then it’ll be Baptist, then it’ll be Catholic. We’ll rotate it. The kids won’t have to go, but the options that they’ll have is sometime on Sunday, we’ll have worship service and you can go if you want to, and if not, you can work in the garden.”

Ballou claims the missionary groups have seen this building, the one with the beehive, and have not been deterred.

“This won’t take much,” he says.

The inside of an old officers’ barracks found on the Border Hope campus. Ballou hopes to transform the building into a sleeping quarters for male and female juveniles within the next three to five years.

Back in the old fire station, Ballou talks more about his immediate plans to teach youth skills that will help them stay independent from the drug cartels. Though the area is mostly storage right now, the youth have already learned how to use woodworking tools to create tables and chairs, and Ballou says he plans on using the rest of the space to fix up and resell automobiles confiscated by border patrol agents. 

“One of the things we’re dealing with is fourth and fifth generation welfare recipients, where no one in their families have a job,” Ballou says. “If Mom and Dad have never worked and they’ve been on welfare all their life, that’s probably what their kids are going to do. But we are trying to break that pattern and change their outlooks.”

Poverty is the driving force behind the trouble the youth get into, he adds.

“The Zeta drug cartel, they have several young recruiters that live in this community and they get paid for setting up someone that agrees to drive a car. And so you have some of these coordinators that are 15, 16, 17 years old and they talk these other kids into getting into the car, going down to the river and loading up and taking it to a house here in the community, a stash house,” he says. “So a kid that is dirt poor may get $600, $800, $1,200 for carrying loads. Well, that’s pretty significant to an impoverished youth. But what happens is, they go down to the river, they go to a place and they’ll meet a Mexican national that has brought 200, 300, 400 pounds across and they’ll get in the car with them and show them where the stash house is, and it puts the kids in pretty significant danger. And once a kid gets caught, then he loses that load. Well, the Zetas lose that load and lots of money and so they threaten the kid and the kid’s family and they say, you are now responsible for this load and if you don’t come up with the money, then we’ll have to hurt your family.”

A chair built by youth in the Border Hope Restorative Justice Center.

Ballou isn’t from Maverick County. He considers himself from Lubbock and his previous experience in juvenile justice and probation was in Floyd and Bowie counties, where he built similar programs. (The non-secure residential center in Floyd County, the Parent-Adolescent Center, focused on using court orders to involve parents in their children’s treatment and includes daily life skills training, social skills training, anger management skills training, mental health services, substance abuse prevention programs, academic and vocational skills training, physical fitness, community service and wildnerness adventure training.

Ballou says when he first got to Maverick County, he was surprised by how entrenched the drug cartels were in residents’ lives. In his first week, three youths were arrested for hauling marijuana. It was a problem he hadn’t faced in the past. 

“I’ve been doing this for a long, long time. This was a community that really needed something different, they needed a change,” he says, adding that 67 percent of youth on probation at the time were committing new crimes within a year. Now, the recidivism rate is down to just 20 percent. “Kids are going to make mistakes and that’s all there is to it. If you can keep a child from making the same mistake or committing another crime, then we’ve been successful with our supervision.”

Maverick County Chief Probation Officer Bruce Ballou is working to improve the lives of youth in the community.

Though it’s cold outside, Ballou is ready to get started on the justice center’s new garden. When a group of students arrive from a local alternative high school program, he gathers them in a circle and starts talking with them about the problems their community faces every day.

“Now you all know people who live in poverty,” he begins. “Some of you may live in poverty. What can we do about it? What can we do about it? Not much, right? But we can do a little bit. One of the things that we are going to do is we are going to plant a garden and we are going to give that food to people that need it. Not to people that want it, but to people that need it.” 

It’s ultimately up to the youths to build the garden — to clear the field, measure it out, prepare the soil, decide what to plant, care for it year-round. The school’s principal tells the students about the lessons that can be learned from gardening and how they’ll have to apply their knowledge from reading, science and math to make it successful.

“This garden is not going to grow anything probably until spring,” Ballou finishes. “But we’ve got to start somewhere and so we’re going to start today. We’ve got a tractor right out here, we’re going to start plowing. We want to calculate the square footage of our garden, so you’re going to have to have some math skills. Who is good at math? Not everybody is good at math but there are some people here that are good at math.”

Ballou talks to a group of alternative high school students about the new Border Hope vegetable garden.

Truancy has been a big problem in Maverick County. Ballou estimates that about 85 percent of the youth on probation have a substance abuse issue or problem, mostly with marijuana; probation wasn’t deterring their usage when he first came on board. But since work began on the new center, the youths have started shaping up. Ballou says he believes its because the youth are aware the center’s happening and they don’t want to have to move in.

“Just its existence has a kind of deterrent to the things that they’ve been doing,” he says, adding that a new after-school program the probation officers have implemented is also helping. (The program includes substance abuse counseling and community service projects, which the students receive grades for.) “These kids are a pretty resilient lot and they are a pretty smart lot and they realize hey, someone is caring for us here. Someone is intervening in the process.”

As evidence that the center is already working, Ballou cites the number of kids arrested for drug smuggling: 40 youth were arrested between 18 and six months ago, but just six have been arrested in the last six months. School expulsions have also dropped, he says: two years ago, 27 youths were expelled; a year ago, just seven; and this year, two so far.

Youths put the first stake in the ground as the first step to building the county’s community vegetable garden.

Ballou sees the Border Hope center as the new future of juvenile probation in Texas. State legislative actions are certainly driving Texas counties toward these types of community-based centers, with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department closing down many of its live-in facilities and placing strict limits on how many youths counties can send away. Ballou believes it’s all for the best.  
“What we are really talking about here is treatment and not incarceration or correction,” he says.  “If you look at the mental health models, it makes more sense to handle your kids locally because you have family here, you have resources here, and if you send a kid off, the kid is going to come back and so what happens when the kid comes back?”

But such centers come with a high price tag that many counties just can’t afford. Ballou believes other counties might find that the future of juvenile probation funding lies with private donors.

“The state money is not there, the county money is not there,” Ballou says. “It’s taken some creative and innovative juices to get the money. I spend a lot of time talking to people and telling them what my plight is, and people step up and they say, ‘hey, how can I help?’ They realize that juvenile crime is not my problem. It’s a community problem.”

But the center can’t save all the youth from their troubles immediately. When it opens, it won’t have space for female residents. Though about 95 percent of the youth arrested in Maverick County are boys, the girls are having a hard time, too, mainly with teenage pregnancy. Those that get arrested are mostly arrested for running away or possessing small amounts of marijuana.

A group of alternative high school youths watch as Ballou shows another youth how to run the center’s tractor.

hough Ballou has seen first-hand the ways in which Mexican drug cartels penetrate into American lives, he says spillover violence is still rare. 
“The Zetas know if they come across and do this violence and do a lot of harming, then that creates a lot of public awareness,” he says. “It’s just become a way of life down here for a lot of kids and a lot of families that no one thinks about.”

But there was one incident of violence that shook him up, when one of the youth on probation, a 16-year-old, went rogue on a deal to sell guns to the Zetas and sold them to others instead. The Zetas sent a woman across the border to pick the youth and a friend up and deliver them back to Mexico, where they were beaten for days. The youths were eventually dropped back off on the U.S. side of the river and were hospitalized, then placed in a relocation program. 

The new community garden begins taking shape, as one youth works the weed whacker and another learns to plow the freshly cleaned landscape.

Ballou believes a major component of juvenile justice and probation is teaching youth how to think for change and take responsibility for themselves, as they tend to engage in “thinking errors” to justify their behaviors. Addressing the thinking errors is part of the probation department’s standard curriculum.

“One thinking error that we identify in kids is feeling special — feeling that the rules don’t apply to you, they apply to everybody else. And we all, I think, we engage in those kinds of thoughts,” Ballou says, adding that he wants to use cognitive redevelopment to change the way the youth think about themselves and their actions. “If a kid steals a candy bar and he says it’s just a $.50 candy bar, it’s not that big of a deal, well that’s called downplaying, and kids engage in that kind of behavior because they want to be seen in a good light. And so we teach them what the thinking errors are. Then when they use them to justify their behavior, we’ll say ‘Wait a minute, you’re engaging in a thinking error, let’s take responsibility.’”

The youth are also given anger management skills. “We don’t have a lot of violence down here but we do have a little bit,” Ballou says. “We have this machismo attitude with some of our kids that makes them think they have to whip the world.”

Youth help each other calculate the square footage of the 89’ X 114’ garden.

he process of transforming Maverick County’s juvenile justice system has been long and slow. It’s behind schedule, but making progress every day. The project is making a difference, inspiring community members to help build a better world.

“We’ve got contributors out of Houston, we’ve gotten contributors out of San Antonio, we’ve got contributors locally. I’m working on a group of attorneys now that is going to be building a basketball court,” Ballou says. 

“Some of the people that step up have been in trouble themselves and they want to help out. I got a guy that wrote me a $20,000 check and he struggled as a youth. He’s in a position now where he can help and so he has agreed to help. I got a heating and air conditioning guy that has given me four heating and air conditioning units at his cost, so it’s about $14,000, where as the others are more like $30,000- $40,000. So he’s giving it to me at cost, he’s going to install it, and he’s not going to charge me anything for his labor. He has struggled with drugs and alcohol and he knows what it’s like,” he adds. “These people want to give back.” 

Youth on probation get ready to add a coat of paint to the center’s showers and isolation rooms. 

The Border Hope Restorative Justice Center, as of Jan. 18. Photo courtesy of Bruce Ballou. ​✯​