“Someone else is happy with less than what you have.”
This quote came across my desk last Friday afternoon and it resonated with me. I had spent the early part of Friday morning in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, as one of our dedicated CASA Volunteers awaited the Court’s decision about continuing jurisdiction with a young woman, “Beatrice”, who was turning 18. I met Beatrice for the first time that morning. She was smiling and full of life. Happy. Positive. Excited about her future.
This beautiful young woman has endured in her short life unspeakable horrors. She came to the United States from Africa in early 2003, fleeing abuse and the violence of her homeland. After continued abuse by family members here, she was placed in foster care in 2009, where she has remained, in many different placements. Beatrice had every reason to be broken, miserable and angry… and instead she was smiling, joyful and optimistic. She was thankful for the help she had received from the professionals in her case and especially grateful for the unwavering support she had from her CASA Volunteer.
During the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it is easy to lose sight of what is really important and all that we already have in our lives to be grateful for. This year, I am especially thankful for my new position at Fairfax CASA, which allows me to be a part of an organization that positively impacts the lives of the children it serves. I am thankful for the staff, who come in each and every day with an enthusiasm and dedication that warms my soul. I am thankful for our volunteers, whose selfless giving of their time, energy and spirits leaves me in awe.
Most of all, I am thankful for the children we serve, who remind me each and every day that happiness—true joy—isn’t about the money in the bank or the stuff we have, but about the relationships we have in life.
Children like Beatrice count on the consistent, dependable relationship forged with their CASA Volunteer. It is often the one constant in their lives. Our volunteers commit to staying on a case for as long as it takes—sometimes for years—never giving up and never breaking that promise to be the voice of a child. This year, Fairfax CASA once again provided a volunteer to every child under Court protection. We could not have accomplished this without your ongoing support.
As you reflect on the important things in life, and all that you have to be thankful for, we hope that you will remember the children you have helped by being a part of Fairfax CASA—by being a volunteer, a friend to CASA or a financial contributor, and continue to make room in your heart for them. Thank you.
In other news:
CASA Conference: Partnership for Kids
During November, CASA volunteers and staff from all over the state of Virginia come together for the biennial state CASA conference, “Partnership for Kids.” Fourteen Fairfax CASA volunteers and five staff members participated in the two-day event in Hampton, VA. The conference topics were apropos to CASA case work, including updates on the laws affecting juvenile courts, the impact of domestic violence, understanding the effects of trauma, the use of psychotropic medication in treating youth in foster care, understanding poverty, and more. Most impactful was the personal testimony and professional experience of Fairfax County Department of Family Service’s own Chauncey Strong, who supervises the Permanency and Life Skills unit within the Foster Care and Adoption Program. Considering Fairfax CASA’s push to strongly advocate for older youth in foster care, Mr. Strong’s keynote address and follow-up session about permanency and helping youth successfully transition into adulthood was timely and well-received.
In addition to the conference itself, Fairfax CASA volunteers and staff enjoyed relaxing and dining together. One of the most exciting moments occurred right before the conference began, when CASA volunteer Bob Stewart announced the surprise arrival of his twin granddaughters, Kate and Sasha. Another fun moment was Patty Rager’s name being chosen during the traditional gift basket giveaway, in which winning attendees get to take home one of many gift baskets created by the state CASA programs. Fairfax CASA’s “Fall in Fairfax” basket is pictured here.
As the conference closed, participants were reminded of the importance of their work by a young woman who spoke about how a CASA volunteer advocated for during her teen years in foster care. Now a senior in college and a CASA volunteer herself, the young woman shared about the impact that her CASA had on her life. Also recognized were all volunteers in the state who have served at least five years, and finally, Fairfax CASA’s own Sandy Weinger was recognized as the longest-serving CASA volunteer in the commonwealth of Virginia, with her service of 21 years. The conference ended by recognizing and celebrating the work of all CASA volunteers.
CASA Volunteer Alicia Ritchie
For Alicia Ritchie, becoming a CASA volunteer was like entering a whole new world.
The specialist in international economic development had just retired from a 30-year career when she looked into volunteering with the CASA program. Although eager to volunteer, Alicia was unfamiliar with the child welfare system and working with traumatized children. Nothing she had encountered on the job or as a parent had prepared her for this type of work.
Nevertheless, Alicia immersed herself in her case, advocating for two young boys whose parents were cited for neglect. The parents spoke little English, were undocumented, and struggled to address the boys’ needs at home and at school. The mother’s cognitive issues made the case even more challenging.
Alicia credits her confidence to the extensive training that she received. “I felt supported from the very beginning,” says Alicia. CASA volunteers receive 36 hours of pre-service training and must complete 12 hours of continuing education annually to remain certified. In 2013, volunteers also received educational advocacy training to assist them in monitoring a child’s academic needs.
The educational advocacy training applied directly to Alicia’s case. Both boys experienced learning and behavioral problems due to severe ADHD. Alicia checked in frequently with teachers and attended special education meetings. She noticed that the school staff became more engaged when they realized that someone was invested in the boys ’progress. “Schools respond when they know there is interest in the kids.” She encouraged the parents to become more involved. The father now does homework with the boys and checks their school work.
Cuban-born Alicia knows that her fluency in Spanish has also been an asset on this case. The parents normally rely on translators to communicate. “I don’t know how a non-Spanish speaking CASA could have done it.”
With the case set to close soon, Alicia reflected that what might have been tough – advocating in an unknown field – turned out to be manageable and rewarding. “The hard part is knowing I cannot solve every problem for these boys. The children have a lot not going their way. Their lives are not going to be easy.” But because of court intervention, “their lives are better.”
“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world, for indeed, that’s all who ever have.” Margaret Mead
As many of you know, the end of September marked the conclusion of my tenure as Executive Director for Fairfax CASA. I am grateful to have been a part of this remarkable organization for eight years, and will take many wonderful memories and friendships with me. It has been an honor to partner with you to ensure the safety of our youth and help them thrive.
Over the last four years, Fairfax CASA has reached its goal to serve every child referred by the court, introduced many program enhancements to benefit youth, helped to shape a new practice in the state allowing 18-21 year olds to receive continued service from CASA volunteers, and secured a strong financial base to ensure our continued ability to serve every child in need. None of this would have been possible without your commitment and caring. Thank you for your trust, passion, and generosity in helping us to achieve these goals.
With great enthusiasm, I welcome Mrs. Darcy Cunningham as Fairfax CASA’s new Executive Director. Darcy comes to Fairfax CASA with a strong understanding of our work and a history of leadership defending vulnerable populations. As a child abuse and neglect attorney for the District of Columbia’s Office of Attorney General, Darcy was intimately involved with the child protection system. She has also worked for the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a philanthropic family foundation, and most recently as the Program Director at the ALLY Advocacy Center, which serves youth and adults with disabilities. She has built strong relationships with stakeholders at each organization and is committed to a collaborative leadership approach. Darcy has program management, fundraising, grant writing, and public speaking experience. She even inaugurated a race at her last organization!
Darcy has devoted her professional career to improving the lives of vulnerable populations but has a particular passion for working with child victims of abuse and neglect. “I have always felt that we need the child protection system,” she shares, “but it can be better – I want to help make it better.”
Please join Darcy as she leads Fairfax CASA into its next quarter century. Together, we can change lives.
Light of Hope Volunteer Appreciation Celebration 2014
Fairfax CASA held its annual Light of Hope Celebration on Sunday, September 21, to honor the 165 CASA volunteers who tirelessly lift up the lives of abused and neglected children. The event took place at the Center for Education at Wolf Trap, where guests were treated to smooth jazz by Nicole Saphos trio and heavy hors d’oeuvres.
Lisa Banks, Fairfax CASA’s Executive Director, started the evening’s presentation by praising the tremendous work of CASA Volunteers over the program’s 25 year history. “CASA Volunteers are those extraordinary individuals who stand by children during their toughest times-offering them a caring hand and strong support that lights their way,” Lisa reflected.
Matthew L. Raymond and SRA International, Inc. received the Child Advocacy Award. McGuireWoods, LLP was recognized with the Corporate Champion Award for its support and corporate citizenship.
The most important award at any Light of Hope event, the May Cook Heart of Gold Award, was given to Ed and Patti Rager – the first time that a husband and wife have received such recognition. Fairfax CASA Supervisor MaryAnn Wohlford introduced the Ragers, noting that the couple “personifies the very essence of the role of CASA volunteers- an unwavering commitment to advocate for the best interest of children.”
Other highlights of the evening included the introduction of Darcy Cunningham as Fairfax CASA’s incoming Executive Director. Darcy will assume the executive role in early October, when Lisa Banks departs for a new position. State Senator Dave Marsden received a special leadership award for his hard work in clarifying legislation, so that juvenile judges may continue the appointment of a CASA volunteers when youth age out of foster care at 18. Lisa Banks received a surprise May Cook award to honor her accomplishments on behalf of the program. “I am so honored to have had the opportunity to work with all of you—it has truly been the most rewarding professional and personal period of my life. Together- we have done a lot of amazing things!”
May Cook Award – Light of Hope 2014
The Ragers, the first couple ever to receive the award, were sworn in as CASA volunteers in 2007. For Ed, CASA volunteering has allowed him to have an impact on those who are at the beginning of their lives. For Patti, the experience has allowed the retired pediatric nurse to renew her connection with children.
Ed and Patti have served on multiple cases, including one with a family of seven children ranging in age from one to nine when the case began. The Ragers committed themselves to advocating for each child’s particular needs. They became involved in all aspects of their lives, never failing to visit each of them, no matter where they were.
Supervisor MaryAnn Wohlford praised the Ragers for their ”commitment, insight, and advocacy for these children. Combined with their collaborative approach, Ed and Patti have gained the respect of all the professionals.” Among many accolades, one Guardian ad litem described the Ragers as “a wonderful representation of all that is good in CASA.”
The Ragers feel very strongly about giving back to the community. For them, CASA volunteering is “frustrating, heartbreaking, humbling − and most of all rewarding.”
Going the Distance for Youth
Exactly two years ago, in August, 2012, I wrote to you about a young man who had come under the court’s protection after repeated sexual and physical abuse. The youth’s mental health had rapidly deteriorated without proper attention from his family and he was placed in foster care. I worried that Fairfax CASA would not have the capacity to help him because we were understaffed and struggling to find CASA volunteers for a number of waiting youth.
Soon after my letter, veteran CASA volunteer Siobhan agreed to be this young man’s advocate. Through skilled and caring dedication to his needs and well being, Siobhan has become one of his most trusted sources of support. While he continues to face challenges, this young man has thrived in his foster home and school, and is building a life of opportunity, which includes college next year.
This story would be magnificent enough if it ended here, but there is more.
Nearing his 18th birthday this month, the young man and Siobhan discussed the option of her continuing as his CASA volunteer until age 21, while he receives independent living services from the Department of Family Services. Years ago, this request would not have been considered – or even possible. By law, CASA volunteers did not have a clear role as advocates after the age of majority.
Fortunately, our Commonwealth has placed special emphasis in recent years on providing additional supports for vulnerable youth who do not have family available to help them navigate adulthood. New legislation, which took effect on July 1, clarifies that the courts in Virginia may order CASA volunteers to remain on a case after a youth’s 18th birthday. And – that is exactly what happened.
This month, at a hearing for this young man’s case, a Fairfax County juvenile court judge continued Siobhan’s appointment to serve the youth after age 18, making Siobhan the first Fairfax CASA volunteer ever to do so. The young man then shared with the judge that although trust does not come easily to him, he trusts his Guardian ad litem and Siobhan and is glad they will remain in his life.
We have witnessed history in the making this month, and I am proud that this young man – and many others to follow – will have a CASA volunteer by their side, supporting their entrance into adulthood.
What a magnificent difference in just two years.
In other news:
“Splurge for Children!” at Fairfax CASA’s Auction Dinner
Splurge for Children, a dinner and silent auction, will take place Tuesday, September 9, 7:00 PM, at The Wine House in Fairfax City. Forty guests have reserved a spot to enjoy a five-course meal and wine pairing, while bidding on exclusive silent auction items.
The funds raised from this special evening will support Fairfax CASA’s work throughout the year.
With the community’s involvement, we have been able to increase awareness about child abuse and neglect as well as raise money for our important mission. We are most fortunate to have support from business owners like The Wine House, who are committed to giving back to the community. With their generosity and a big “splurge” from our special guests, even more at-risk children will have an opportunity to grow and learn in a safe and loving home.
Interested in donating a silent Auction gift?
To donate an auction item, email Jennifer Bellhouse
CASA Volunteer Sheila Morris
That’s the nickname CASA Volunteer Sheila Morris uses for the teenage girl for whom she advocates. Now almost 18, the teen first came to the court’s attention when her parents neglected to care for her progressive neurological disease. It’s a challenging case, as the girl also struggles with mental health issues and needs special care.
Sheila is a constant figure in the young girl’s life, following her through multiple foster homes and repeated hospitalizations. “Whenever I appear for a visit in a new place, she asks, ‘How did you know I was here?’ These children have learned not to count on people. To realize that someone is always keeping track of them, that’s not something they take for granted.”
The path towards becoming a CASA volunteer started in 2005, when Sheila saw a notice in the paper for an information session. The program sounded interesting – Sheila studied early childhood education and loves children – but she was raising two boys, working, and did not have time to volunteer. She cut out the notice and placed it in her desk drawer, pulling it out now and then and debating whether the time was right for CASA. In 2010 she decided to take the plunge.
As a CASA volunteer, Sheila values her ability to keep other team members in the loop. “I often have a piece of information that I assume the others have and then find out they do not.” Just recently, she learned that the girl would not be graduating from high school before her eighteenth birthday. Sheila notified the social worker to ensure that the girl would continue to receive services, even after she aged out of the system.
Another proud achievement? The smile on her teen’s face when she uses her nickname. “She was called Jellybean as a young child. When I call her that now I get to enjoy her wonderful impetuous laugh. Those moments of joy are priceless.”
Do More 24
Tomorrow, June 19, has been designated as Do More 24™ in the DC metro area. Organized by United Way of the National Capital Area, Do More 24™ leverages the power of individuals with a one day online fundraising event to support the region’s nonprofit organizations as they respond to our community’s most pressing challenges. Fairfax CASA is proud to participate in this year’s campaign and we invite you to participate as well!
Please make a donation or widen our circle of support by passing this email on to three friends.
At Fairfax CASA, our goal is to ensure that every abused and neglected child has the opportunity to grow, learn and thrive in the safe embrace of a loving home. Our challenge is to provide a highly trained and supervised CASA volunteer advocate who will stand up for these children in court and fight for their rights.
Be a part of this powerful movement:
1) Starting at midnight tonight, you have 24 hours to make an online donation
2) Bookmark this giving link
3) Encourage 3 friends to give
Make tomorrow a great day for children in our community!
In other news: