The third agency to be highlighted this week who receives funding from United Way is CASA.
CASA, (Court Appointed Special Advocates) is an organization manned mostly by volunteers from all walks of life who simply want to make a difference in the life of a child and believe that society has a fundamental obligation to these children. These special advocates believe that every child has the right to be treated with dignity, to be safe, and to thrive in the embrace of a loving family.
The history behind the CASA movement in the United States on a national level goes back to 1977, when a Seattle Superior Court Judge named David Soukup was concerned about trying to make decisions on behalf of abused and neglected children without enough information.
According to the National CASA Association, Soukup conceived the idea of appointing community volunteers to speak up for the best interests of these children in court. He made a request for volunteers; 50 citizens responded, and the CASA movement was born.
Today, the CASA family of volunteers has grown to a network of more than 50,000 volunteers that serve abused and neglected children through 900+ local program offices nationwide. Volunteers have helped more than two million children find safe, permanent homes.
When asked how CASA of Dunklin County was born, Mary Lynn jones-wright, program director, noted that the local chapter of the organization is in its fifth year of operating and was started by a local Juvenile Judge, John Beaton.
"The interest was there and the juvenile judge thought that a CASA Program was appropriate for children who are in the legal care of the court here in Dunklin County so a nucleus of people who were interested jumped on board and made that happen."
According to jones-wright, the mission of the organization nationwide as well as the Dunklin County chapter is to train adult volunteers to represent foster children in court, thus improving the lives of many children who have been abused and neglected. When a volunteer has been court ordered to work with a family or child, he or she is chosen based on their ability to most effectively meet the specific needs of the child.
While CASA of Dunklin County does receive some funding from the state and the United Way, more support is always needed to expand local programs and meet expenses.
When asked how much the local chapter receives from the United Way, jones-wright noted that 10 percent of their budget is from the United Way. This is estimated to be around $3,500. However, this amount can vary, depending on whether the United Way meets its goal each year.
Besides United Way and state funding, the organization also hosts different fundraisers each year to raise money, including the "Chair-table Auction" and the "Jerry Ford Orchestra" event. According to jones-wright, these have become annual events. Gospel artist and Kennett resident Willie Johnson, Jr., and "Friends" also contributed their talents in a concert to help raise more funding for the organization. Donations from the community are also accepted.
According to jones-wright, volunteers are always needed. Right now the local chapter has 19 volunteers with some in training. To become a volunteer one must be 21 years of age and fill out an application. A background check is then done and the applicant must undergo fingerprinting. After the applicant is approved, they must undergo pre-service training of 30 hours in a classroom situation which will include observations in court. After the training is completed, you are sworn in as a volunteer. The first assignment after being sworn in, you are assigned a mentor who will work with you.
"In CASA we ask that you see your child at least once a month," she said. Of course, some volunteers see their child more often, depending on what the need is at the time. Usually, you are assigned only one case.
Continuing, she said, "We can be anywhere, although, we're not everywhere. Nationally, by 2020, we hope to have a CASA volunteer for every child who is in the system. We're a long way from that because we're not even in surrounding counties." jones-wright noted that the other nearest chapters of CASA are Butler County and Cape Girardeau County.
According to statistics provided by CASA, with a volunteer, a child is half as likely to stay in foster care and the welfare system. The child is also more likely to find a safe and loving home.
When asked for comments concerning why they volunteer for CASA, Lee Poindexter and Geneva Johnson, each shared their thoughts.
Poindexter used to work for the volunteer organization of the Girl Scouts and upon retirement, she was looking for something to do that was important.
"I was ready to give back and I'd also been a CASA volunteer in Jonesboro [Ark.] with their organization so I contacted Mary Lynn and told her I was very interested in it. It's needed and it's great. I feel like you can make a difference in the life of a child." She acknowledged that it was rewarding but it can also be heartwrenching sometimes.
Continuing, she added, "There are lots of areas, lots of feelings you have about it but you do feel like you're doing something good and it's rewarding. "
Johnson agreed. She noted that the way she came into the CASA family of volunteers was by attending the different banquets that the organization held each year. Her husband, Will Johnson and pastor of the Lighthouse Church in Kennett, had also been a board member.
"They began to talk about the children and how they needed volunteers, someone who cared about the children." She remembers seeing some children come in with foster parents and not their parents. Continuing, she said, "I could see the need for someone to be there for those children. They needed a mouthpiece, someone to speak up for them when they go to court. "
She talked of how they would come into the child care center with grandparents, foster parents and cry because they wanted to be with their mother.
"That just really touched my heart and I felt like I wanted to do something to help those children. That's what really touched my heart so I took the training and I've been with it ever since because every child deserves a loving home and a loving place."
* Some information for this article has been sourced from a CASA brochure and previous Daily Dunklin Democrat news articles.