This is a post that I have held onto for awhile now. This is a story that I have guarded closely. Maybe because of respect for those involved and alongside me. Maybe because of reluctance to address some unhealed wounds that deeply shaped me. Either way, strap up and let’s dive in. This will be a #longread .
After high school, I followed a desire to work at a Summer Camp in Kerrville that I previously featured on the blog. Well, if we’re keeping it 100, the first Summer, I followed a girlfriend to the camp. About halfway through that season, I realized that I was more interested in the work than the relationship.
I arrived back in Houston in late Summer of 2004 to start my college career at the community college while I supported myself with an after school childcare job. The school year ran it’s course and I applied for the same Summer Camp for a second Summer and was happy to return to the Texas Hill Country. There is an unmatched serenity that I found in the gentle breeze that caresses one’s face in the Summer Sun in the Hill Country. The sun may beat your brow, but that breeze reassured me that in that precise time and place, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.
A small portion of the Summer Camp was populated with campers who also happened to live year round at a residential treatment center (RTC) for boys in nearby Ingram, Texas.
The RTC homed mainly residents in Child Protective Services (CPS) care ages 7-17 with emotional disturbances and learning disabilities. The benefit of the RTC for many of these boys who were separated from their homes by the State for a multitude of reasons was the on site access to services (education, therapy) as well as being a safe place to live. In reality, while adoption was a possibility for some of these boys after therapy, many of these residents had been categorized as high risk and might not qualify before they aged out of State Care. There were a few private residents, but most of our population by in large arrived via CPS placement.
Yet, as the end of my Second Summer at the Camp in Kerrville started to arrive, I made a decision to not return to Houston so readily. A position (or realistically, a couple of positions) were open to become a Houseparent at the RTC in Ingram. The salary wasn’t great, but room and board were covered and I was eager to serve in this fashion. The serenity I heard whispering through those hills with each breeze was powerful enough for me to heed the call. A couple of the Camp Staff in Kerrville also worked in Ingram, so the transition was pretty fluid for me.
I loved the relationships that were formed by joining the RTC family. I was 19, with a lot to learn alongside a group of deeply passionate people who welcomed me with open arms. Folks who I knew peripherally through camp became family once we mutually acknowledged a shared passion that extended past a short Summer season. I was surrounded by a beautiful landscape, felt like I had a purpose in a vocation that was helping and was able to modestly support myself.
The normal schedule at the RTC was something close to “Half Week on/ Half Week Off” which allowed for small stretches for local-ish travel. I had a 7 year old Silver Honda Civic Coupe that afforded me a generally reliable (sans multiple replacement alternators) transportion around town when I wasn’t on site. In addition to the regular Houseparent duties, there was a semi-constant need for night staff at the end of my regular shift, so I would make a little extra dough by chugging a Monster Energy Drink and staying up to accompany the regular night crew staff before I slept during a portion of the rest of my time off. Night staffing provided me some really weird stories that will have to wait for another day.
As the holiday season started approaching that year, I began to look toward heading back to Houston to spend some time with family. I skipped volunteering for the night shift one weekend and headed home. I remember that as I cruised the streets of Houston on that trip looking at holiday lights, something inside told me that I should return to Ingram. I didn’t know if it was because I wasn’t used to taking all of my time off or for any other reason, but I needed to return. I couldn’t have prepared myself for what awaited me.
When I made it back, I found out about the unfortunate passing of one of the boys.
I want to make it very clear that I was not on site at the time of the loss, but the information relayed to me was summarized as this;
The 12-year old resident was participating in self destructive behaviors, unresponsive to redirection or de-escalation. When the resident began slamming his head against a brick wall, an experienced staff member initiated a basket hold restraint to protect the resident from further self harm. The resident still continued to fight the restraint. EMS responded to the scene and CPR was performed before the resident was transferred to a local hospital where he later passed away.
The death served as a major blow to the family that was the RTC. While I was not assigned to the specific resident, I remember him as a genuinely sweet kid in the interactions we shared. My experience with him was that he was a polite and relatively timid pre teen. He enjoyed participating in the sports and activities we played as a group. His smile was infectious.
For those wondering; the de-escalation procedure and basket hold restraint are common practice in a professional setting of this type. I know the staff member who was involved and still hold a great deal of respect for their handling of every situation which they were presented. I have no doubt that this was a tragic loss, free of malice or ill intent.
An investigation was conducted by the State and criminal charges were not pursued against the staff member. A grand jury found that this scenario was a tragic accident almost 3 months after the loss, just as we perceived the matter from it’s onset.
We mourned the loss together and made additional counseling services available to all of the boys. There was some local media coverage on the matter that only served to muddy the water with inference and unsupported allegations. Walking around town began to feel like there were targets on our backs.
Trying to explain the inexplainable is the biggest takeaway that I found myself grappling with. We tried to find a new normal. I took on more Monster Energy fueled night shifts, as we weathered the blow that is felt with the passing of a child. I still haven’t found a word to describe that pain, but I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.
However, in May, another tragic accident occurred off site as one of the boys on a supervised bike ride near the property was swept away by a large creek current and lodged in a drainage culvert. He was rushed to a hospital, where after 24 days, his family decided to take him off of life support.
Again, I questioned what could have been done differently, even though I was not on shift. I was familiar with the staff member assigned that day, and hoped that maybe there were different ways that this would have played out. I ached for this rag tag family that broke bread together, cared greatly, loved deeply and did everything that we could imagine for a group of kids that seemed like the world turned it’s back to.
The beginning of the end of the RTC seemed eminent, though at 20, I didn’t know what that meant. It just felt like it was slipping out of our grasps, as though the world we knew was toppling over all around us. We still wanted to provide as normal of a program for the boys as possible. We continued the charter school routine. We continued to train in methods of deescalation. We held weekly post dinner bible studies by the water as the weather allowed. We played so many games of dodgeball and a gaga ball. We still very much cared about being a safe place for kids who had a tough shake before arriving to our door.
The State cancelled it’s contract with the facility, marching 19 residents out one morning without warning. I remember making a phone call from the property to a former staff member, dumbfounded as to what to say to quantify the decision. To the RTC’s credit, the organization kept me on a couple of weeks after the boys left doing odd jobs around to prepare the property for what would lead to an eventual sale. The era had indeed ended, the sun had finally set and I solemnly began to await the rise of another day.
Ingram was small enough that I would have to drive to the local coffee shop to use the internet. The cafe was near the fork in the road as you entered Ingram. Whataburger, a General Store and Wells Fargo as well as a service station or two rounded out the mix. Cell phones were still mainly text and call based as Apple had not widely introduced nor produced the iPhone. I painstakingly decided to head back to Houston with my broken heart in my hand and ended up beginning a career in Youth Ministry before a corporate turn and then a recently discovered pivot to education. I remember candidly detailing in part the experience to my Youth Ministry Internship search committee thinking that I had blown the interview. But, alas, I was welcomed in to a new experience with grace and understanding.
The relationships that I formed and the life that I was building in Ingram still haunt me at times. I invested so much of myself into people and believing that what we were doing was good, but ultimately it all collapsed in time. I wish that these were not the lessons that stand out to me. Instead, I am still trying to focus on certain friendships that have withstood what felt like a time of hell in our lives. I do feel like I can reach out to any of those folks from a small group who without question would walk side by side with me. Many of us have spread all around the Country in the decade and change that has passed. I watch via social media the life events, the new adventures and the struggles which are shared, sometimes offering a joke or word of encouragement. Maybe this is as close to rebuilt as I will ever become.
I chose “All Falls Down” by Kanye West this week partly due to a play on words and partly because of my lingering melancholy that Syleena Johnson portrays in her vocals. The photo was snapped alongside the creek where bible studies were held with the RTC kids. The maps call this Fall Creek, but this will continue to be known to me as just part of the official facility name; Star Ranch.
This one still hurts. But, if you are still reading, maybe there is healing to share. Until our next journey, let’s take care of one another, y’all.