CASA Volunteer Spotlight: Providing a Voice for Children in Need

CASA Volunteers advocate for children who cannot advocate for themselves. Here are some stories to highlight the great work being done by CASA Volunteers.

Court Appointed Special Advocate of Prince George’s County is proud to announce that our nominee for the Governor’s Award in Service and Volunteerism for 2014 is longtime CASA Volunteer Ellen White.

In 2009 Ellen White came to CASA ready, not just to become a CASA volunteer, but to completely prioritize doing service for her CASA youth above all else. Having just retired from a satisfying career in telecommunications and federal regulatory compliance, where she participated in various service projects through her employer, Ellen was ready to use her acquired skills of fact finding, conflict resolution, and creative problem solving to improve the life of a child in foster care. In her tenure at CASA she has done exactly that. Her sustained volunteer commitment makes her service to CASA longer than any staff member barring CASA’s executive director.

Ellen’s initial motivation to volunteer came about when she heard about Guardians Ad Litem (GAL) while living in Florida. She was inspired to help youth navigate the process of Juvenile court, which youth in foster care must appear before every six months. Under the GAL model, Ellen would have helped multiple youth through the institutional intricacies of foster care. When becoming involved with GAL’s Maryland counterpart, CASA, she learned about a slightly different model. Now Ellen focuses on one youth, and her primary motivation is her youth’s wellbeing. Ellen has said on her motivation: “Advocating for (my youth) and also being able to see her mature and achieve her primary goal of graduating from high school this year, is the most fulfilling opportunity anyone could have… I could not be prouder of all her achievements and the support I was able to provide as her CASA for the past 6 years.”

In 2014, Ellen White dedicated over 150 hours to her CASA case. As a Court Appointed Special Advocate, Ellen is required to make recommendations on the care and custody of her CASA youth to the Court. Over 90% of her recommendations to the Court have been adopted. Ellen attended both planned permanency hearings for her youth in 2014, and indeed has never missed a court date, family involvement meeting, IEP meeting, or any other treatment team meeting for her youth, of which there were 15 in 2014. Outside of these team meetings, Ellen met with her youth in person 30 times, which is well above the CASA requirement of 2 meetings per month. Additionally, in the realm of education, Ellen was able to identify and procure the donation of a valuable educational resource for her youth in the form of a reading pen valued at over $200. CASA is of the opinion that, beyond these impressive numbers, the social and emotional support Ellen has provided her CASA youth has been unquantifiable.

Ellen’s current supervisor admits that, when she first inherited Ellen as a CASA volunteer, Ellen made her nervous: “Ellen never needed any help from me” she said, “I wasn’t sure if it was because she was a superstar or a slacker.” In the years of service since then, it has been made clear that Ellen is truly a superstar. In 2014, Ellen became the first Prince George’s CASA to be asked by Social Services to participate in choosing a new foster home for her youth. Ellen also advocated for a private tutor for her youth, and facilitated communication between her tutor and her teachers. CASA’s Executive Director explains that Ellen’s excellence is ultimately a consequence of her social and emotional consistency: “In the past six years, Ellen has been able to provide for her CASA youth the family dynamic that she has so obviously been searching for. Ellen fills the gaps in her youth’s life that parents typically would, gaps that are never filled for most youth in foster care.”
Thanks to Congresswoman Donna Edwards or stopping by our CASA booth and speaking with some of our volunteers! This April CASA has been out in the community recruiting volunteers to serve more abused and neglected youth in Prince George’s County. Two of our volunteers, Nathaniel Wallace and Antoinette Jeffries are pictured above with Congresswoman Donna Edwards at the Forestville High School Community Day. Thank you to Nathaniel and Antoinette for stepping up to tell our community members more about CASA!

Margaret Harris is one of our longest serving CASAs, dating back to the spring training class of 2008. She has always had a strong interest in helping children that have been treated as a failure before they even had a chance to succeed. Margaret’s previous service in Prince George’s County and Fairfax County, VA, providing youth with literacy services, led her to reflect on the challenges that youth with unstable home and families lives must be facing. This revelation led her to CASA, where she has found that her role is critical in helping illuminate the gaps that occur between service providers, in addition to being a stable presence in a child’s life.

Margaret has been on the same case since she began with us in 2008. She says her CASA youth is a perfect example of who CASA was built to protect: “basically a good kid, struggling to make her way through all of the challenges that she faces, both within herself as well as those that are not her fault.”

What is the best part about being a CASA for Margaret? The relationship between her and her CASA youth: “My CASA kid makes me proud all of the time! Whenever she does things that are beyond her ‘diagnoses’, I tell her how proud I am of her. The incidents are too numerous to mention and may seem mundane to most people, but those are the times when she shows me just how much she has grown and matured, and most importantly, shows how determined she is not to limit herself and her thinking to how others have labeled her.”

Thank you for your service, Margaret!

As we approach the Holiday season, CASA would like to cast its spotlight onto our volunteers and friends who are organizing holiday gift drives for all of our CASA youth.
One of our newest CASA volunteers, Eliane Lakam, mobilized Prince George’s Community College Honors Society & Phi Theta Kappa International Honors Society to conduct a gift drive full of toys, books, stuffed animals and gift cards for our CASA youth. Eliane has just graduated CASAs Fall 2014 pre-service training, and will be taking her first case in the upcoming weeks.
Angela Cartwright is coming up on her one year anniversary of service with CASA and for this holiday season has organized The Holiday Gift Drive for CASA Tots and Teens, in conjunction with Circle of Pearls, LLC and Pump it Up in Silver Spring MD.
Last but not least, Claire Hines, an active CASA member since 2008, conducts a longstanding gift drive that helps CASA provide gifts and gift cards for our children and teens every year. In the years she has been with us, Claire has been a consistent presence not only for her CASA youth, but for the entire CASA family!

All of the gifts assembled by our amazing volunteers will go straight to abused and neglected children in Prince George’s County this holiday season. Thanks to everyone who has participated in these gift drives and have brought some Holiday Cheer into the life of a CASA youth.
Virginia Waters has been serving as a CASA for six years, and her dedication to her CASA youth shines through in her service. Case supervisor Cheryl Richards has said “Virginia is a true CASA Champion! She is the ultimate advocate for her youth. She has a true desire to make her youth’s life better. Virginia would protest alone in front of the White House if she thought it would increase her chances of getting the appropriate services for her youth. Virginia is not afraid to ask the difficult questions or make an unpopular recommendation if she believes it’s in the youth’s best interest.”

Virginia is motivated in her work as a CASA by her children and grandchild, and she hopes that all children can have the happy childhood she saw reflected in their lives. She is proud to have been the consistent presence her CASA youth has needed, and she is happy to know that without her presence as a CASA, the young lady in question may not have had some of the services she did.

Virginia is excited to continue her service and to be the permanent presence in the life of a young lady who needs it. She truly understands that her influence in this young woman’s life today can change the trajectory of her future. Virginia understands that trust comes from consistency. She always follows through on what she says she is going to do and her CASA youth knows that (and we know it too!).
Dana Kayser grew up outside New York City and attended Goucher College, where she studied Political Science and started the Goucher College Model Senate Club. After graduation, she joined the Rochester AmeriCorps, where she worked in the public school system.

Rochester AmeriCorps enabled Dana to develop strong relationships with the students she served. During that year she also gained valuable professional skills, and the experience cemented her resolve to continue in the National Community Service movement beyond her AmeriCorps years.

Dedicated to the national service movement, Dana chose to serve with Volunteer Maryland, in large part because she admired Volunteer Maryland’s unique way of multiplying service by training AmeriCorps members to expand volunteer programs. Dana’s passion for youth outreach and development make her a great fit for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Prince George’s County. Dana’s long-term goal is to work for the Corporation for National and Community Service, and she believes Volunteer Maryland will help her get there.
Simon Lee served as a Volunteer Coordinator through Volunteer Maryland, an Americorps program that pairs citizen volunteers with nonprofits where they provide nearly a year of service to improve programs. In his time at CASA, Simon helped to recruit volunteers, coordinate training, plan our annual World of Wheels for CASA and monitor cases that had not yet been assigned to a CASA.

In his time with CASA, Simon proved the value of having a full-time volunteer, dedicated to the volunteer application process so that prospective volunteers had a single point of contact. He developed a Volunteer Coordinator Manual that will be used to train future Volunteer Coordinators. Most importantly, he took on responsbilities that allowed Case Supervisors to focus on their volunteers and the youth so that we could ensure the highest quality of service possible.

On reflecting on his time here, Simon had this to say to CASA volunteers:

“Within this last year, I have come to understand the mission of CASA and meet the volunteers who stand for that mission. I was, and still am, very humbled and privileged to have interviewed and talked to you about why you wanted to volunteer at CASA. Your backgrounds and why you came to help the foster youth in need are all so different yet come together for one reason, which I find so amazing.

As the Volunteer Coordinator, I have come to understand and build a relationship with the Prince George’s community… You have been such a big part of the reason why I enjoyed coming to work every day and I wanted to say a formal ‘Good-bye’ to you. Remember, it is you who continue to inspire and drive this organization to grow and allow us to be able to serve more youth. Please continue to spread the word and mission of CASA!”

Click here to learn how to become a CASA or see our CASA Champions page if you are interested in additional ways to help CASA.
Britt Jung became a CASA in 2012 because she realized that there are a lot of children in need and felt she had a duty to help. As a former teacher with some extra time, she felt like there was no reason not to help. So she became a CASA and is now advocating for a 14 year old girl who does not currently have a clear path towards a permanent placement. She has 5 siblings in various placements so one area that Britt focuses on is making sure she has regular visits with her siblings. Britt also concentrates much of her efforts on educational advocacy. The young lady is reading much below grade level and Britt sees an obvious tie between her literacy and future prospects so she is working hard to make sure she receives all available educational resources.

Britt wants to make sure she is not just another layer in the case and works hard to provide helpful, valuable information to the court. The Court and DSS are most directly charged with ensuring physical safety and medical care of the children and youth in foster care. However, Britt reminds everyone to see the whole child and look towards the future, not just her immediate needs.

For more on Britt and her reasons for becoming a CASA volunteer, see her “My Two Cents” article in the Hyattsville Life and Times (see page 2).
Jerry Thigpen has been a CASA for over 5 years and works with twin 19 year old boys who came into the system due to severe abuse by their adoptive parents who had adopted them out of foster care. Jerry works hard to make sure each young man is having his individual needs met, advocating for appropriate medical, mental health and educational services and ensuring that they are in appropriate and stable placements where they are cared for by foster parents who respect their religion, culture and individual identities. Recognizing the importance of family and the bond between the two boys, Jerry transports them for visits with each other no matter where they are placed; driving as far as the Eastern shore, so the brothers can visit one another. He takes them to various local organizations to perform community service and exposes them to cultural and sporting events, expanding their worldview and opening their minds to the possibilities that life can bring.

Jerry would be the first to tell you that the boys challenge him. They are facing enormous internal and external challenges that they do not know how to overcome. Jerry never gives up and is always creative in the way he communicates with the boys and their service providers. He is determined that these boys grow into responsible young men that he can be proud of.

Jerry is proud of his decision to become a CASA and affirms, “these children are deserving of our time, compassion, love and understanding.” CASA staff are glad to have him on board. He is truly making a difference in these young men’s lives.

To learn more about Jerry’s story, see the article about him in the Gazette.
Tomika Holmes first became involved with Prince George’s County Foster Care as a child. Her mother was not capable of caring for Tomika and frequently abandoned her, leaving her to bounce from foster home to foster home. Throughout those tumultuous years, there was one individual who was always there for Tomika- her Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). CASA volunteers are trained to advocate in the best interests of abused and neglected children in foster care and her CASA volunteer was the one individual who was there for her no matter what.

Tomika was eventually reunited with her father and went on to raise a happy family of her own but always wanted to find the individual who helped her through those difficult years and give back in a meaningful way. When Tomika learned about CASA/Prince George’s County, she realized that it was a CASA volunteer who had helped her. In the past 3 years, she has become a model CASA volunteer, working with a teenage girl who will age out of foster care to independence when she turns 21. Tomika talks with the girl every day and has been there for every significant milestone. Despite going significantly above and beyond her required service, Tomika constantly questions what else she could do to help this young lady prepare to step out on her own.

After overcoming multiple obstacles in her own life, Tomika has developed a personal philosophy that reminds her to keep the past in the past and keep looking forward and that is exactly what she is inspiring her CASA assigned child to do. She is a stirring model of what you can achieve when you let go of what has happened to you and focus on the life you want to create for yourself.