CASA volunteers ready to give their time, emotion

There’s a real sense of pride that comes from helping others, but it takes a little something extra to be a volunteer, whether it’s at a soup kitchen, a hospital or just helping out a local organization.

Seven new Southeast Texan CASA volunteers sworn in by Judge Randy Shelton this past Monday will be giving up not just their time, but also plenty of emotion and energy. They have become the latest group of CASA volunteers who will assist children navigating through the oftentimes emotional and difficult CPS Foster Care process.

This was the first class of 2012.

“It’s easy to volunteer money, or be a part of a project,” said Judge Shelton on Monday at the Jefferson County Courthouse, speaking to the newest CASA representatives, “and there are going to be times when you finish working with a child where you don’t feel good about how things are going, but those kids need you.”

CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, came about in 1977 in Seattle, Wash., after a juvenile judge there decided he had insufficient information regarding the juveniles he was working with and came up with the idea of citizen volunteers who would work with the children on their behalf and help the court make better informed decisions as to the child’s placement.

Thirty-five years later, CASA continues to represent children in 49 states across the country, including right here in Southeast Texas, where the Southeast Texas Chapter is celebrating its 20-year anniversary this year.

Lanis McWilliams, executive director of CASA of Southeast Texas, said the feedback she and others from CASA have received from judges across the state indicate how helpful the volunteers are.

“The judges feel like they’re getting more complete information,” McWilliams said, and that stems from CASA folks being able to spend more time with the children and obtaining that information. McWilliams added that a CASA representative being assigned to every case is also indicative of the positive impact they provide.

McWilliams estimates around 400 CASA volunteers have been trained during those 20 years while serving more than 5,000 children.

In order to become a CASA volunteer, one must first complete a basic background check, a 33-hour training course and agree to stick with a case until its completion. According to the CASA Web site, an average case takes about a year and a half. Volunteers generally commit to a year once they’ve completed training and are sworn in.Once a child – depending on his or her situation – is placed in the care of Child Protective Services, that child is assigned a CASA volunteer who is that child’s advocate, spending time with the child, attending court dates with the child and ultimately is a spokesperson for the child. It’s a very important role, and one that can be very gut wrenching at times.

According to CASA, volunteers sometimes say that there is a greater amount of work in the beginning of the case, when they are conducting their initial research. On average, a volunteer can expect to spend about 10 hours a month on a case.

For Tomica Burney and Qourtnee Davis, both students at Lamar with ambitions in the social work field, the opportunity to help youngsters in the CPS system was a no-brainer.

“I’ve worked with juveniles before, and it just saddens me to see kids with no voice,” said Burney, 33, a Beaumont native. She added that she’s had other jobs working with juveniles, and so working with CPS would be nothing new to her. She just wants to help prevent children from living in unhealthy or dangerous conditions.

Brian Cain, a 25-year-old New Orleans native who’s in the Coast Guard and stationed in Port Arthur, said the opportunity to help kids prompted him to volunteer.“It’s just doing the best for the community and looking out for others, and I hope I can help a kid’s life like others looked out for me,” said Cain.

Etty Haiston, at 83, has been volunteering most of her life, and at age 73, she had completed volunteering with an agency and wanted something else to do. She found out about CASA and decided to give it a try.

She said it’s been the most rewarding and difficult volunteering she’s ever done.

“It gets in your blood,” she told the group Monday, “and I want to say congratulations.”

Ten years into volunteering for CASA, Haiston said she has no plans of slowing down. “I’m going to continue to do this as long as I can breathe.” She offered a cautionary note to the newest CASA members.

“When a little bit of your heart goes out with one child, remember this – there’s another child waiting.”