Coronado is rich in volunteerism. Talk with a local and you will find that many of the residents have an active role in an organization that benefits others. One of those organizations is Voices for Children which is beginning its 40th year with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) in San Diego county. These CASAs, who make dramatic differences in foster children’s lives by mentoring and advocating for them, are quietly changing one life at a time. According to its web site, “Founded in 1980, Voices for Children is a private, nonprofit organization that recruits, trains, and supports Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers who speak up for the needs and well-being of children in foster care. As the only agency designated by the courts to provide CASA volunteers in San Diego and Riverside Counties, Voices for Children’s CASAs play a crucial role in helping judges make the most informed decisions for children’s futures.”
Each foster child has a different story. Some have been physically abused; some have been sexually assaulted; some have been abandoned by addicted or imprisoned by parents or caregivers. All have emotional baggage to varying degrees. “Voices for Children believes that every child deserves a safe and permanent home and, to that end, will provide a trained CASA volunteer to every abused, abandoned, or neglected child who needs one, and advocate to improve the lives of children in the foster care system.”
Coronado has its share of CASAs who devote a minimum of 10 hours a month for at least 18 months to one or more foster children, often working with a sibling group. Rebekah Sorensen, Genevieve Knych-Rohan, and Francisca Bye are three residents who devote time volunteering as a CASA. Sorenson was introduced to Voices through a CASA friend who suggested she listen to a panel of foster children. Real Word is a panel of former or current foster children, trained and supervised by Voices for Children, who open up about what being a foster child was like and the impact their CASA had in their lives. Sorenson heard one panelist say, “I attribute my success and my thriving to my CASA.”
After hearing the inspiring presentation, Sorensen decided she could “do a tiny part in helping a child.” Since her only child died several years ago, she decided to dedicate this time to him, saying you need “to be a problem solver and have a caring heart to advocate for foster children…. You need to be flexible, roll with the punches, think outside the box, and be non-judgmental.” Sorensen is still on her first case after three years, mentoring siblings, an 8 year-old and a 6 year-old. She was instrumental in acquiring a grant for YMCA participation one year which allowed the older child to have swim lessons and attend camp. His thanks was, “This was the best summer I’ve ever had.”
With her diverse resume of Director of Gerontology for Utah, State Director of Development for American Cancer Society, fund raiser for various organizations, bridal shop owner, and other ventures, Sorenson volunteers with a wealth of experiences. Her love of children and her “I am for them” attitude makes her suited to CASA work. Sorensen enjoys the challenges involved in meeting her children’s needs, establishing relationships with social workers, family, and caregivers, reporting to judges, and searching for opportunities to smooth the paths for all concerned. She would agree with the Voices for Children web site which states a benefit of being a CASA is “Most importantly, the opportunity to make a positive impact in a child’s life.”
Bye, a former community college professor in Radiologic Technology in Pennsylvania, has lived in Coronado only three years. She says volunteerism gets you involved in the community, so becoming a CASA was her way of adjusting to a new situation and giving back to the community. As she surfed the volunteer web sites, she saw Voices for Children and felt it was a worthwhile pursuit which would use her experiences with students. After the Information Session, application process, fingerprinting and investigation, and acceptance, Bye started her twice a week, 3-month training. The stringent training involved speakers from pertinent areas, all of whom were experts in their fields. The class included a diverse population, not only in career choices but also in age. She was impressed with so many young adult volunteers and that Voices for Children “took me seriously.”
Bye, who has two adult sons, is on her second case as advocate for a thirteen-year-old. Adding to Sorensen’s qualifications for a successful CASA, she lists “self-confidence, empathy, and the ability to work with lawyers, social workers, and therapists.” She added that “You have to have a thick skin. You can’t take it personally.” Bye believes a CASA is often the “one person that’s consistent” in a foster child’s life.
Knych-Rohan responded to a public service announcement from Voices for Children, and after advocating for 11 foster children over 15 years, she is a role model for CASAs. However, she says you need to “be a good role model for the children you mentor, by showing up and being consistent.” Reminiscing about her first case, three siblings, she says, “Everyone is better because they had a CASA. One is a chef; one worked for Fed Ex before becoming the stay-at-home father; one girl is married with a baby; all are self-supporting.” Knych-Rohan is still in contact with those adults through phone calls, texts, and cards. About her subsequent former cases, she commented that many graduated from high school. Four or five are in college and working.
Asked what is included in her contact with the children and their care givers, she mentioned “taking them on outings such as bowling, for fast food, and celebrating everything.” Visiting the Hotel Del Christmas tree each year is a special outing. The holidays and birthdays are especially difficult for foster children. Knych-Rohan takes pictures for the children to create their personal memory bank. One young adult told her the only pictures he had of his childhood were ones she had taken.
My last two years teaching in San Diego were as the English teacher at Polinsky Children’s Center, an emergency shelter for children on their way to foster care. With a new roster each morning, children leaving or arriving at various times, the adjustment to a different style of teaching was essential. My introduction to CASAs was when a seventh grade boy asked to use the computer period to write his CASA a Mother’s Day letter. At his request, I read it for grammatical errors and saw his unabashed love for this woman who visited him regularly during my English class. At that moment, I decided that when I retired, I would be a CASA. My 14 years, with five foster children, were as satisfying as are the experiences of the three CASAs I interviewed.
Voices for Children has a stellar training program, continuous staff support for CASAs, and a reputation for providing CASAs “who speak up for the needs and well-being of children in foster care.” A CASA becomes a consistent, stabilizing force in a foster child’s life, someone who seeks to smooth the bumpy road and give them a childhood. “Because of the unique nature of this advocacy work and the personal connection to a foster child, many CASA volunteers find that their service is the experience of a lifetime.”