For Janet Walden, the executive director of the Hall-Dawson Court-Appointed Special Advocate program, the goal of the organization is to make sure that every child has someone who will hang their photo on the refrigerator.
She told the story of Maria, a local girl who was in foster care for a while and had a difficult home situation, but knew she wanted to live with her grandparents. Her CASA volunteer, Bill Bombardier, and Juvenile Court Judge Alison Toller helped make that happen.
Walden said when she went to visit Maria at her grandparents’ home, she could tell she was loved there.
“From the moment I walked in the door, it was the pictures that caught my attention. Picture frames on the mantel, on the coffee table, on the refrigerator,” Walden said. “I was once asked to talk about CASA, to give an image of what CASA is. For me, CASA is that picture frame. What we do, with your help, is to make sure every child has a picture on somebody’s refrigerator.”
Hall-Dawson CASA held its annual Casablanca fundraiser at the Chattahoochee Country Club in Gainesville Friday evening, raising almost $13,000, or enough to support about 13 children for a year. The organization currently serves 331 children and has worked with 533 in 2018 so far.
Maria, one of the children who has been helped by CASA, spoke Friday.
“You really do matter to all of those children who go through the foster care system, who need that extra kind of support,” she said.
Judge Alison Toller, who handled Maria’s case in the juvenile court system, said Maria knew exactly what she wanted — to live with her grandparents permanently — and was brave and poised when speaking in court. But even when children are strong, CASA volunteers can step in to help with the process, Toller said.
“Although many children don’t want to talk in court and they find their voice through their CASA volunteer, some children like Maria already have their voice,” Toller said. “But they need that CASA to help push them along and encourage them.”
On Friday evening, CASA also honored several volunteers.
John and Cassie Adams received the Impact Award. They have fostered nine children in less than a year. While the Adams had not anticipated fostering a teenager, they have fostered mostly teenagers and are now teaching four of them how to drive.
“John and Cassie, both full-time teachers, are incredibly caring, energetic, selfless, resourceful and creative,” Latisha Fletcher, Hall County’s Division of Family and Children Services director, said. “What they found unexpectedly, was a love for fostering teens.”
David Smith, executive director of Center Point, which provides counseling and mentoring for students, received the Champion of Children Award.
“The children he serves feel valued. They receive resources and skills for problem solving,” Connie Stephens, former CASA director and now grant manager, said. “He helps them navigate academically and personally through everyday challenges.”
Smith said CASA volunteers help the children they serve, but the adults can learn from the children, too.
“In a day and in a society where we live and we hide behind labels, children don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Smith said. “They don’t care if you’re Baptist, Methodist, Catholic. … All children want to know is that you’re there, you love them and they have the opportunity to love you.”