Earlier this month, Darcy had the pleasure of chatting with Nicole Alexander, one of our amazing volunteers, about her experience of being a CASA. Below is a transcript of that conversation.
Are you originally from NoVA?
You are? WOW! You don’t hear that very often in Northern Virginia. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in McLean, where I live now, but I left for college, and moved around quite a bit for about 15 years and then came back to Northern Virginia and Mclean 16 years ago when we were ready to “settle down.” My kids have said It is kind of strange to live in the town that you grew up in but we love it here. It has been great having my mom, who recently passed away, living down the street from us.
How did you become a CASA volunteer?
When I lived in New York City, I had volunteered for a number of years, with a group that worked to support pregnant teenagers in Harlem, and really loved it. For paid employment I worked in the corporate world, but really enjoyed my volunteer work. When we moved back to Northern Virginia and my 3 boys got older, I had more free time and started to dip my toe back into my previous career in event marketing but did not find it as fulfilling as I previously had. I spent some time thinking about how I wanted to spend my time now that my own children didn’t ‘need me’ as much. I thought back to when I worked with those teenage moms, and how much I enjoyed getting to know them and supporting them on their journey. I went to a Fairfax CASA information session, and I felt like, “wow, this is really something that I would be excited about.” It took me about a year to apply, for it to be the right time to make the commitment. The idea of getting involved personally with kids and families really appealed to me. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work in the past but its sometimes been a one off event or short term commitment. I loved the idea of being with a family and seeing it through until the end.
So you joined us in 2020, right before the pandemic.
Yes, I was sworn in right before the pandemic hit.
And I’ve just started my third case, with my fifth child. One closed, one is still open waiting for the adoption to finalize (with three kids) and I was just assigned a new case and I am meeting her today! She was born in July. I do like getting my little baby fix. My first case also started when she was a baby and now she is a happy, healthy toddler.
So why do you keep doing it? Why do you continue to take cases and be a CASA?
You see in little, and big, ways that you make a difference in a child’s life. What you say to the DFS worker that helps steer them in the right direction. What you say to the mom to keep them working hard for themselves and their children. It is hard to explain all of the ways that you are steering things towards the best interest of the children but when you are doing it, living it, focusing on these families, you do see how much difference you are making.
Everyone has a limited amount of time, I’m turning 50 next year and I am lucky to have a choice in how I spend my time and I can’t think of a better, more meaningful way than spending it trying to help these kids.
I also think I’m getting better at it, so I feel more confident now, I work really well with Amy, my supervisor. I now have more of a comfort level with how the system works. I’m always getting more knowledge and learning, for example, all the acronyms and the players. At this point, I would feel bad NOT continuing to be a CASA, because I am becoming more proficient at it. There are so many children in Fairfax County that need this type of support.
Now that you’ve had two years, and you’re on your 3rd case…is CASA work different than you had anticipated? Is it better, worse?
I would say that it is how I expected it to be because the training was so thorough and gave a really clear picture of what we would be doing. Some of the exercises we did in training, like when we were going around the room, practicing interviewing social workers and what pieces of information did I need next—at the time I was like, this doesn’t really make sense—but then once I actually started doing it I was like, “oh, that was really helpful.”
The one thing I wasn’t sure about was interacting with the families that are having so much trauma and you are meeting them at the worst time of their lives…but I have found it interesting how I can have such good conversations with people and bond with them, when they are going through their worst moments. I wasn’t sure how I would be received as the CASA, but we are all just humans doing the best we can, trying to figure this out. I’ve realized that if you just approach people as people and be honest with them, you can get there. I was nervous that the parents may not want to talk to me and let me in, but if you can be empathetic and be an ear—I think that you can be helpful.
The mom from my first case—I really care about her a lot (note—mom had a long history of drug addiction and achieved sobriety and was able to be reunited with her baby) and I think we will stay in touch.
What is something that you learned from your cases that you didn’t learn in training?
In my first case, there seemed to be a misunderstanding and the social worker was adamant that the mother could not have her baby back in her custody if she was still on methadone, which didn’t make sense to me, because it is medication. The peer support specialist got involved and we introduced research they changed their position. This showed me how having someone like a CASA digging in and trying to figure out what is going on can really make a difference.
I have also learned about the cyclical nature of poverty and that when people get stuck in a bad situation, how it effects the next generation. This has been a recurring theme in my cases, particularly in regard to substance use issues. As part of our work, we get to know the parents’ backgrounds and it has been so thought provoking. Not one of my parents has come from a stable place. Although we learned about these cycles during training, I have found it shocking how much it has been apparent in the three cases I have worked on.
How is your current case?
They are all doing so well. They are living outside of Fairfax. These three children were stable and happy in their foster home here so when they went to live with their aunt and uncle and cousins, I was really worried about that transition. But seeing them there, with their extended family, especially the oldest with his aunt and uncle and his cousins – he is just lighter. I can’t explain it. It drove home what we were taught in training – that kids do better with their family if that is a possibility. It has been great to see them flourish as they get settled in their new home.
What has been your most positive experience within CASA?
Watching the mom in my first case. When I met her, she had been a heroin addict for ten years and did not know she was pregnant until a few weeks before giving birth. She never thought she could get her life together—those are her own words. But she fell in love with her daughter and wanted to give her a great life and family. She did everything she could to become healthy and get custody of her daughter back. She followed her drug treatment program, did her parenting classes and took full advantage of the services offered to her. It was an incredible thing to watch her transformation over two years. She is smart and thoughtful and I am incredibly happy for her and her daughter that they are reunited and her case is closed!
One time I gave her a book about overcoming past trauma. And she said, “I’m not the kind of person who people give books to,” and I was like, “You are now!” and we both laughed. She came from a cycle of neglect and abuse and from the age of 15 had never had any family support. Then she had her daughter, and she was like, “oh my gosh, I don’t want this to be her story.” To have the privilege of watching someone completely change their life….was something I will never forget.
Outside of CASA, what do you like to do?
I like to spend time with my three boys (15, 18 and 21) my husband Michael and my new puppy Reggie. We lost our dog in May right as our 2nd son was heading off to college. Reggie is exactly what we needed. I love to read, eat out, play golf and spend time with friends. My husband is from England, so travel has always been a favorite thing of ours. COVID was hard on that front. I started needle point during COVID and my kids make fun of my old lady hobby.
If you could give any bit of advice to a new volunteer, what would you tell them?
Practically, I would give them advice on staying organized. I have a system, which helps me to do my timesheet and then my court reports. Being organized and taking a lot of notes just helps. I write everything down.
When I first started, I was nervous about how to approach families that I might not have much in common with, when they were going through a traumatic time. It helped me to put myself in their position and think about how I would want to be spoken to? How would I want to be treated? Showing empathy and acknowledging how hard things must be for them is incredibly important.
And my third thing would be stick with it. Your first case is your hardest because everything is new, and the learning curve is steep— it gets easier. Lean on your supervisor… they are wonderful and are here to help.
We think Nicole is wonderful! Thank you, Nicole, for all you do for CASA and for the children and families in your cases!