Turning Troubled Teens’ Lives Around: Texas Treasure Cookie Rodriguez

Cookie Rodriguez doing her ministry to save troubled teens.
Breitbart Texas/Merrill Hope
Dallas, TX

Cookie Rodriguez is the petite and unassuming 73-year-old spitfire who heads up the non-profit Christian-based Nu-Life Outreach Center and Street Church (D-Boy) Ministries. It is open seven days a week in the Dallas suburb of Garland. She has been helping kids in the Metroplex since 1983 and has been dubbed the Mother Teresa of gangs, drug addicted and troubled teens because, through faith, she has helped them to turn their lives around.

“Miss Cookie” is what the kids call her. They come in all varieties — white, black, brown, yellow, boys and girls. Most come because they are in trouble with the law, are on probation and have been assigned to be there for community service hours. Many who come are in gangs, but not all. They are all under 18. Some bring siblings. Some hear about her through probation officers. They come because they have to, they stay because they want to.

Cookie Rodriguez' Ministry

Over the years she has garnered praise from Dallas City Hall, the Dallas Police Department, and school psychologists for her work. Rodriguez helps these lost souls find a way out of the gang life, get off drugs, deal with family problems and sometimes brings families closer together. Through afterschool programs, field trips, fellowship, mentoring and counseling, she helps them acquire the life and work skills needed to become productive members of society.

She knows it can be done. She was once one of them. Faded junkie tracks mark her arms. The 1974 autobiography Please Make Me Cry chronicles her teen years spent as a felon, hooked on heroin, in a gang and pregnant.  Although born “Irma,” she got known as “crazy cookie” and faced 20 years in prison at one point in her young life.  It was a far cry from the little girl from Puerto Rico who to New York City in the 1950’s for a better life. She came with her grandmother, who raised her because her own teen mother was deemed unfit and her father committed suicide.

On the road from gang member to minister, she blamed all of her problems on God until an ex-con she used to mix it up with told her he had gotten “saved,” something she never heard about before.

It led her to Teen Challenge. Created by the Rev. David Wilkerson, Teen Challenge is a nationwide outreach ministry and Bible-based recovery program for troubled teens, gang members, drug addicts and alcoholics recognized as one of the most effective programs of its kind.  Today, she is also a Teen Challenge director.

By the time she was 22 years-old, Rodriguez was living a respectable life. She was married to husband Demi, got custody of her eldest son who was taken from her, and was drug and gang free. “Once I turned to the Lord, as a Christian, I wanted to help others,” she reminisced.

Breitbart Texas had the opportunity to visit with Rodriguez. Her storefront style street church is modest and is funded through the kindness of donations. It is housed in a small strip mall on a main thoroughfare. The entry way walls are adorned with original street art and paintings, some donated, all gleaming with scripture.

Cookie Rodriguez' NuLife Ministries

A larger, virtually empty social hall holds “Get Real with God” worship, teaching and fellowship takes place every Sunday night while on Wednesday evenings she conducts Bible study. The wall posters preach “become, belong and believe” in the person “God created you to be.”

Fellowship and services, clubs and counseling take place all week long. Older computers for a GED lab are in the small room adjacent to Rodriguez’s office. An art teacher volunteers time.

“The kids, they start to come after school,” Rodriguez told Breitbart Texas. On any given day, there can be as little as 30 and as many as 100 of them, some out in the parking lot with the ministry’s tattered but usuable portable basketball net.

The teens were polite, courteous and well groomed. One wore his pants in the low hanging gangland style. Rodriguez told him to pull them up and without a blink he said, “Yes, Miss Cookie.” Another teen mentoring for the workplace volunteered as an office assistant. He wore a suit. His hair was kempt.  “I make them dress for success,” she said proudly.

One 16-year-0ld former gang member told Breitbart Texas he was at Nu-Life for a few months. “Miss Cookie, she changed me.”

A 17-year-old former gang banger convicted of theft chimed in to say that he had been through the public school juvenile disciplinary behavioral management programs, calling those programs “a negative place” and he only “felt like a number” but his face lit up speaking of his Nu-Life family. He explained that he is learning how to handle the temptation of the gang. “If we had more places like this to come to, it would be good. This is a positive place,” he said.

The youth is back in school and studying automotive mechanics. “With Miss Cookie, it’s a personal relationship. You start to believe you can be better when you come here,” he said, adding, “Miss Cookie, she helped with my family. The way she couldn’t get help for herself, she does for us.”

Rodriguez often counsels the parents and other family members of the youth who is in crisis.  This God-centered ministry also teaches coping tools and strategies to at-risk youth to aid them in remaining gang and drug/alcohol free, including conflict resolution and teamwork. Her outreach includes work with the residential drug treatment center for girls, New Life for Girls, as a counselor with International Prison Ministries, and as a volunteer with the Texas Youth Commission.

“I really admire her for turning her life around and doing what she does for us,” the 17-year-old said.

She is well aware of the kids’ strengths and short-comings and does not have success with every youth. They come in the middle or high school years. She measures success differently than do the public school Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP) and Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP) where success means completion of probation.

Her goal is a little more long-term since many continue to come long after they complete their community service requirements. “When they graduate, to me, it’s like, they’ve made it,” she chirped with great personal pride. She encourages them to go to junior college.

Dallas businessman Darren Blanton is a longtime supporter of Rodriguez’s efforts. He told Breitbart Texas that when he met her nine years ago, he recalled his younger days when he was a “lost sheep.” Blanton and a few former Dallas Cowboys are among the mentors who volunteer to work with  youth who stick steadfastly to their life-changing goals at Nu-Life.

Blanton noted that Rodriguez operates on a very modest budget, unlike those for DAEP and JJAEP. In 2012, Texas Appleseed questioned the validity of such leviathan public programs that are fraught with poor outcomes. They quoted the costs of 2008-09 statewide taxpayer costs of DAEP at $232 million and the 2010-11 JJAEP public funding at more than $31 million. Additionally, the state’s school districts pumped $327 million into campus security and monitoring services in 2010-11.

Blanton agreed, “You can’t rehabilitate people with a system. You can only rehabilitate them with a relationship.”

Working with Rodriguez is her grandson as did her late son Danny “D-Boy” — the most successful Christian rapper in Dallas.  In 1990, he was killed in what Rodriguez called a case of mistaken identity. Like his parents, Danny was an activist and counselor in Metroplex gang-infested communities.  Following his death, Rodriguez called for a “ceasefire” among the gangs.  Ironically, when he died, D-Boy’s single was “Cease for Peace.”

She has four other grown children. Her husband passed away in 2010. They were married 43 years and he was Street Church’s minister.

A little over 30 kids were hanging out on this one night when Breitbart Texas visited the ministry.  She and a few volunteers made ham sandwiches and brought in some tacos from the neighboring strip mall food joint to serve them dinner, but first they prayed.

Recently, a blood pressure scare sent the septuagenarian to the gym where she is now working out four days a week.  She told Breitbart Texas that she only asks God that “her mind stays young” so she can keep up with the kids.

Not surprisingly, her cell phone ringer is set to John Mayer’s Waiting on the World to Change.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.