Volunteer Spotlight: Meet Winifred!

Winifred Conkling was sworn into service as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in 2011. Since then, she has served nine families and 20 children. Winifred has also dedicated over 2,471 hours to the children on her cases.  All her cases have differed, but all have benefited from her unwavering advocacy. Over the past two years, Winifred has worked on her cases remotely while living in New Haven, Connecticut with her husband who was continuing his education. While it would have been understandable if Winifred had resigned from CASA work, she remained dedicated to her role as a CASA and continued to visit her CASA children in Virginia. We are grateful that Winifred has chosen to continue her CASA journey!   

Read on to learn more about Winifred! 

Could you tell me what your job is like as a writer? 

Way back when, I worked in newspapers and then in magazines. When I had kids, it became easier to freelance and work at home. I did that for 30 years. I’m still writing. I work under my own name, and I do some ghostwriting —or helping other authors shape their work. I’ve done a fair number of adaptations of adult work for young adults. For example, I simplified Margot Shetterly’s Hidden Figures into an edition for younger readers.  

I love books for young readers. In half as many words, you can get the same content as the adult edition. 

Have you always lived in this area? 

No, I grew up in Florida. My parents died when I was a kid, and I lived in Indiana for a few years. I suspect that a lot of people who do CASA work have some kind of childhood trauma that makes them respect the pain that people endure in childhood. It’s such a formative time to make an impact on somebody’s life. I went to college at Northwestern in the Midwest. I’ve lived in New York, West Virginia, and D.C. I’ve been in Fairfax for 35 years. 

What have your CASA cases been like in the 13 years you’ve been here? 

I tend to have longer cases. While I’ve had some that were fairly short, I’ve had others that have gone on for years. I have one case that’s still ongoing that will wrap up when one of my cases completes Fostering Futures in the fall. That case I’ve had 10 years, so that is definitely atypical. 

These long-term cases have worked well for me in the past two years. My situation is a little bit [different]. My husband, after 37 years of practicing law, decided to leave his law office and go back to school. He had a legal background of doing environmental work and has pivoted to getting a scientific foundation too. We spent the last two years in New Haven.  

In keeping with that for two years I’ve had two long-distance cases. This kind of weird arrangement worked because one [child] was in Fostering Futures and the second case was also out of town, so I could do a fair amount of the CASA work remotely. 

My in-laws are in their 90s, and I would come back to Virginia every few weeks. When I was back, I would go and have the face to face [meeting]…My husband graduated a couple weeks ago, so we are now back in Virginia. It is going to make life easier in a million ways. It was a wonderful experience, but things will be easier to manage. 

Winifred Conkling with her husband.

How do you connect with the kids on your cases? 

It really isn’t up to me. It’s a matter of responding to what the child needs or wants. I have one kid now who likes jokes and riddles. He was located out of state. Every Sunday, I would write him notes that would have riddles in them. Afterward, he liked being the one who could ask the riddle of his peers. It gave him almost a bit of power. 

He loved that. It’s kind of the same thing as playing a game I suppose. Because we weren’t together, it was a way to play a game remotely. He is [an] intellectually engaged young person who I think enjoyed the challenge and does see himself as smart, so it’s nice to reinforce his confidence in knowing he has a good brain. 

What are the most significant challenges children who are in need of CASAs are facing today? 

I think it’s the matter of feeling important to someone. We all need to feel tethered to the earth and have a connection to another person. Some of these kids do not feel the connection to their parents and their families. Some do. But I think they’re all reaching to grab on to something. 

They need that. We all need that. I think that’s a human need—an innate need to feel safe and connected. 

What do you find difficult about being a CASA? 

Logistics. We all lead complex lives, and it can be challenging particularly if you have more than one case. In essence, juggling everyone’s needs. There were times when I had multiple cases, and it was a challenge to make it to all the meetings and all of the hearings and make the visits and all of that. 

One of my frustrations is that we so often advocate for trauma informed care in therapy, but our kids don’t get it. Some of the most complicated cases involve kids bouncing from one facility to another and those therapeutic relationships are severed and restarted repeatedly. In treatment, therapists are putting out fires and addressing the latest episode of misbehavior, so they don’t have time to address the root causes of pain. I find it remarkably frustrating because they need a deep therapeutic connection that is consistent over time. Inconsistent care undermines trust and the ability to do the hard work of healing. 

What fuels your passion for CASA work? 

I find it meaningful and a good use of my time. Our work makes a difference. It’s a privilege to be a voice for someone who may otherwise not be heard. 

You’re going on your 13th year of being a CASA. What do you attribute to your dedication to this organization? 

I think it’s the most significant volunteer work I have ever been involved with. I think the effort that you put into your CASA work can have a real meaningful impact on kids’ lives. There are few things you could do that are more important than that.

Thank you, Winifred, for your commitment and the positive influence you have been in our children’s lives.  

You can make an impact like Winifred! Take the first step to volunteering as a CASA and email us at volunteer@casafairfax.org