Volunteer Spotlight: Meet Lisa Merhaut

Lisa Merhaut has made a powerful impact on our program in the past year and a half as a committed volunteer. She is currently advocating for four children from two different family groups and makes being a CASA while working a full-time job look easy! Her supervisor Mary said, “Lisa’s energy and enthusiasm for her CASA work is unmatched.  She is a zealous advocate for the children on her cases and is highly respected by the DFS Specialists, GALs, and providers she works alongside.  Lisa’s warm, kind demeanor has allowed her to establish beneficial relationships with her CASA children, their parents, and caregivers.  Her “never say never” attitude recently resulted in a mother recommitting to her services and being allowed to return home to her children. A win for everyone! Lisa is also an enthusiastic supporter of Fairfax CASA.  She assists with fundraising and speaks at information sessions, where attendees have commented on her energy, enthusiasm, and obvious love of the CASA program.  Lisa found her way to CASA thanks to her sister, Lynda, who has been a CASA for over 20 years, so CASA work is in her blood.  Working with Lisa is a joy.  Whenever she comes into the office, she leaves everyone feeling brighter and more energized about our work.  We are so fortunate to have Lisa as part of our Fairfax CASA team!” Read on to hear about Lisa’s time as a CASA.

Lisa, are you from the DMV area?

Yes! I was born in DC and grew up in the Northern Virginia area!

Can you tell me more about your initial interest in becoming a CASA?

Well aside from my sister volunteering as a CASA for twenty plus years, my interest has always been caring for children. I began babysitting when I was twelve years old, I just loved children. My background, and how I grew up and some of the difficulties I had growing up really inspired me to take part in a program that would help children to have a better life. I think my own childhood is what inspired me most of all.

So, you’ve been a CASA for about a year and a half now, is that right?

Yes, a year and a half. I feel like I’ve been doing it so much longer! I’m on two cases; one with three children and another with one infant.

In what ways do you connect with the kids on your cases?

It’s hard to explain, for me it’s natural and I gravitate towards the children. I get down to their level and approach them in a way that makes them feel comfortable and isn’t too overbearing. It takes time to build a relationship, especially considering what they’ve gone through. Now they’ve gotten used to me, and they look forward to seeing me. I get on their level, I play with them, and I get my hands dirty. That’s how I connect with them!

It’s also important to have a relationship with the parents too, so the kids see me being kind to their parents, offering them help, laughing with them, sharing stories with them as best I can. Anything I can do to connect with the family in a positive way.

As a CASA, we are the one consistent person on the case. In my three-child case, the kids have had two specialists, and they don’t see the GAL too often, but I have been there the whole entire time, for a year and a half. That’s all they know; I’ve consistently been there for them and that’s huge!

How is your three-child case going?

It’s such an amazing, awesome story. It’s been really, really hard and the mom was struggling for a while. The parents were irritated that they had to do all the services, but in the end, they realized the benefit of the services. Because mom has been doing everything she needs to do, the family will be reunited!

What is your most memorable experience as a CASA?

I would say, at the last court hearing for the three-child family, just seeing the mom. She looked so good and so healthy! She had her hair done and makeup and nails done, she just looked prepared to be in court that day. At previous hearings, she lacked confidence and looked very distraught. To hear the judge at this hearing say the kindest words about this family and hear that they will transition to living together again was probably the most memorable time as a CASA. Seeing the result of what happens when people’s lives are torn apart, and then they can come back together. We’re not fully there yet but we’re almost there, just weeks from reunification.

How is it working with the other professionals on the case?

For the most part, I have been lucky to work with great professionals. Communication can sometimes be a challenge because of their workloads, especially the specialists. Sometimes you don’t have the same level of communication with one specialist or professional as the others. You’re constantly relationship building as a CASA.

How do you balance your own workload with your CASA responsibilities?

I work a full-time job, sometimes 50-60 hours a week, and even on weekends occasionally! I make CASA a priority. When I start a new job or project, I let the others involved know that being a CASA is part of my fabric and I have a commitment to these children and families to be there for them. Thankfully, I get a lot of support from my employer. You really have to build this role into your life.

What is the most difficult part of being a CASA?

The biggest challenges are the reposts. Writing court reports, filling out timesheets, progress updates, they are all time consuming but if you keep good notes and stay organized then you get through it quicker. You spend more time on the reports than you do on visits or making phone calls. You really have to have your mind in the right place to complete those reports and the time set aside.

Do you find your CASA work to be rewarding?

Absolutely! I could talk about CASA all day long. It’s very rewarding for me.

How do you make an impact with the kids and families you work with?

As I said before, being there for the family and being engaged. Really letting the children know you are there to help them and support them in their services however they need you to. You know these families may not have the support you and I have. When their world is falling apart, having someone who goes above and beyond shows that someone cares about them. I have built trust with the families I work with and that’s also so important for them.

What advice would you give to a new or prospective CASA?

Utilize your instincts and utilize your supervisor! There is so much information out there for you to learn and different processes you must go through to get the information you need. I’d let them know you don’t need to know about the legal system or services, because you’ll learn all of that.

The biggest thing is having the instincts to know what to do if something goes wrong. Because something will go wrong! You also have to have a big heart.

Do you see yourself continuing and taking more cases when your current ones close?

Yes, absolutely! If I could, I’d take on another case right now. If I wasn’t working full-time, I’d just be a CASA.

What do you like to do outside of your CASA work?

I love going to Hotworx! That’s my new addiction. I also like spending time with my friends and entertaining. I have a dog named Murray and two cats as well!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our community?

You know, I just think that there’s so much we can be doing as community members, no matter how big or small! Even if you don’t have time to be a CASA, you can participate in fundraising and events to promote the work that CASAs do.