Traditionally, “probation” implies a long list of things you can’t do and things you have to do. But Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department delivers a list of things they can do. Including photography.
Service learning programs invite participants to pursue a vocational interest during probation and after their time is served.
“I thought they would just come in and we’d make them do community service,” said Crystal Guerra about her first impressions of starting work at the Juvenile Probation Department. “But the service learning programs allow us to come up with cool, educational stuff for them to do … they don’t just do their community service, they learn something.”
Guerra, in her mid-20s, is a community service restitution specialist for Bexar County. She’s a single mom of three and finishing coursework for a degree in criminology at St. Mary’s University.
Last year, Guerra organized the photography service learning project, called “Aww Snap.” A gallery event tomorrow night will showcase photography from about nine kids that participated in the second round of the project.
More than 100 photos will be on display at The Paintyard, a boutique and gallery located at 525 San Pedro Ave. The prints will be available for purchase from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and all proceeds go directly back towards much-needed equipment and programing to sustain the innovative service learning project.
“We’re working on a bare minimum as far as equipment is concerned,” Guerra said.
Last year, the silent auction/bidding process proved to be too complicated and inefficient, she said, so this time it’s pretty much first come, first serve, donate what you can.
Some of the photographers themselves will be on hand, with their families to mingle and talk with attendees.
“When you meet them (the probationers), they’re quiet at first,” Guerra said. “They’re very cautious … they’re in (the justice) system, so of course they are, right? But they open up very quickly when you give them a chance.”
Guerra herself is an alumni of the Bexar County probation system – one of the success stories.
“I have one boy, who always struggles to find a ride to class – but he always finds a way,” Guerra said. “He’s really smart and talented – he just doesn’t want people to know because he has that ‘tough-guy’ image.”
Over the 12-week program, the project meets for two hours a week. Sometimes they’ll meet about technical or creative aspects of photography, sometimes they’ll go on field trips, but every time they’re learning skills and concepts that they can carry with them well into their adult lives.
The project is enhanced by the support from several different local photographers Guerra found via the Facebook page: San Antoino Photographers (a closed group, but always ready to accept new members).
“There’s a crazy amount of talent in San Antonio,” she said. “They let us into their studios … showed the kids a part of the industry and shared their passion.”
Local photographer Ron Smith often brings six professional-grade cameras for the kids to use and teaches them how to use it, Guerra said, “They’re expensive, but (Smith) is relaxed and really cool about it.”
Trisha Buchhorn, an adjunct photojournalism professor at San Antonio College, also stops in to teach and expose students to the possibility of college coursework.
Raven Red Photography and Tim Cedena have also been a huge help, Guerra said, “Raven Red was actually who got me into photography (years ago).”
With the program, Guerra combines her passion for photography with a special knack for connecting with troubled youths. She’s been there, done that.
“I came from the worst past you can think of – crazy stuff … I’ve been through the system. It gives me an edge,” she said. “The fact that I’m young helps – they’re used to old people telling them what to do, they’re more willing to listen to someone that looks younger.”
In Guerra’s case, it wasn’t her family that came through for her with positive reinforcement, it was the probation office’s staff that taught her how to bounce back more quickly.
“Just say: Forget it. Keep moving,” she remembered telling herself.
Chief Probation Officer David Reilly was an especially positive influence. “That man cares. About employees, kids in the program …” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone that really loves his job (like Reilly). He makes other people want to care.”
She doesn’t go into the details of her past with many people, especially not those on probation, because “that’s beside the point, you know?” The details drag you down, she said. “What matters is that I got through it and I – we – can show you how (to do the same).”