Maleah Truelove was a 13-year-old smart aleck, all jokes and toughness on the outside.
Inside she carried the scars of countless beatings, sexual abuse and life with a meth-addicted mother.
"You learn not to trust adults, especially the ones that say, ‘I'm always going to be there,'" said Truelove, who is now 30 and works as a Hall County 911 dispatcher.
When the teenage Truelove met Debra Sallee from Hall and Dawson County's Court Appointed Special Advocate program, she figured Sallee would be like every other adult who had drifted in and out of her life.
But Sallee stayed.
She talked to Truelove, learned about popular bands so she could relate to the teen and stood up for her throughout her two-year struggle in juvenile court.
Now 30, Truelove is a motivational speaker and a member of CASA's board of directors.
Truelove knows she'd be in jail, addicted to drugs or dead without the support of Sallee and CASA.
That's why she continues to tell her story.
"If I can help one child who's being abused or neglected, it's all worthwhile," she said.
In the Hall-Dawson CASA Program, volunteers such as Sallee act as eyes, ears and voices for young victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect.
CASA volunteers are assigned a case and act as investigators and advocates in juvenile court for the children they represent.
The program needs more volunteers. The next round of training classes for those interested in volunteering will begin Aug. 9.
CASA Executive Director Connie Stephens has worked with the program for 21 years, but says she's still amazed at the giving spirit of the volunteers. For 391 children last year, CASA volunteers acted as superheroes, angels, investigators and the best big brothers and sisters a kid could hope for.
In 2010, 175 advocates worked for a combined 13,064 hours and drove 84,569 miles to save children in Hall and Dawson County from circumstances that most adults couldn't survive.
"They are the heart and soul of this organization," Stephens said.
Volunteers must be 21 years or older and have a criminal background check.
All volunteers meet from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. for nine Tuesdays to learn how to advocate for their children in court and gather information from friends and family members. They also learn how to administer drug tests; about 75 percent of cases that pass through CASA involve substance abuse, Stephens said.
Stephens can rattle off a list of statistics about abuse in Hall County alone. Three babies killed from physical abuse in the past six months. Forty children removed from their homes in Hall County from April through June because they were deprived, beaten or worse.
After more than two decades Stephens has seen a lot of pain, but it never gets any easier to watch.
"We get the worst of the worse. It just breaks my heart," she said.
When there are suspicions of child abuse or deprivation in Hall or Dawson County, the Department of Family and Children Services hears about it first. Once the case enters the juvenile court system, CASA steps in.
At the Little House on Washington Street, Stephens and a staff of just five employees train volunteers and organize family visitations for the children and parents in abuse cases. The Little House has a playroom painted with murals and a closet filled with toys.
"The little kids come in here, and it's like Christmas," Stephens said.
CASA has about 200 volunteers, but it's still not enough to meet the needs of every abused or neglected child.
And in a slow economy, the needs are greater, Stephens said.
"More families are in crisis, and unfortunately the little kids get caught right in the middle," she said.
Harvey Nowland has volunteered with CASA since 2002 and knows how tough it is for kids. A former pastor and missionary to Peru, Nowland has served more than 20 children in the court system.
"Sometimes a kid can get kind of swallowed up in this vast judicial system that we have," he said.
As one of a handful of men with CASA, Nowland is hoping the program will find more male volunteers.
Many of Nowland's CASA children have been teenage boys, many of them hardened by lives of abuse. It's a tough group to reach, he said, but it's worth the effort. And in June, Nowland had a breakthrough.
He came home bursting with excitement. His CASA child was one of three in a family to find a permanent home, he told his wife, Bobbie.
"They're just thriving over there," he said. "It's great."
Nowland, who has six grandkids of his own, stays in touch with many of the children and teens he's advocated over the years. Some of them treat Nowland like the only grandfather they've ever had.
The training may be rigorous, and the responsibility is huge. But the end result is more than worth it, Stephens said.
"When you look into the eyes of these children, how can you not help them?" she asked.