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CASA leader Stephens honored for 27 years of advocacy
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Court Appointed Special Advocates volunteers Lynn Johnson and Pat Bursten speak with the incoming CASA executive director Janet Walden during a retirement party for CASA Executive Director Connie Stephens Tuesday evening at Hunt Tower in Gainesville. Johnson and Bursten have been volunteering with CASA for about 5 years. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Stepping down from her executive director role, Connie Stephens said she was glad the reins have been passed to someone “just as passionate and committed.”

Stephens, the outgoing executive director of the Hall-Dawson Court-Appointed Special Advocates, gathered with friends, family and fellow child advocates Tuesday night at the Hunt Tower in Gainesville to celebrate her 27 years of service.

Janet Walden, who formerly served as the Forsyth CASA executive director, took over on July 11.

CASAs are volunteers acting as investigative advocates for children in Juvenile Court, who talk with people involved in the child’s and parent’s life. Judges receive reports from the CASAs on the child’s best interests.

Though not present, retired Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff wrote a letter that was read aloud praising Stephens’ “tireless advocacy” for children in this judicial circuit.

Stephens was one of the first volunteers with Hall-Dawson CASA back in 1990, later becoming the executive director of the nonprofit organization in 1993.

Retired Juvenile Court Judge Mary Carden said CASA marked a tremendous change in the outcomes of children in the courtroom, who previously did not have a voice.

“This community is the reason this organization has been so successful,” Stephens said, who will continue on with the program in grant writing.

Hall-Dawson CASA Board of Directors President Dr. Louis Spear said Stephens has the ability to “make people care,” while others noted it is hard to say no when approached by the longtime executive director.

Moving to the new agency, Walden said “it’s all about the volunteers” and making sure the advocates have the support to continue in their work. Stephens said the agency needs about 30 more volunteers to tackle the growing caseload.

The agency served more than 500 children last year, adding four to five new cases each week, Stephens said.

“Our kids are the true heroes,” Stephens said, remarking on their resilience and strength in trying times.

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