CASA of Northwest Arkansas celebrates 20 years of supporting children

Posted: October 29, 2017 at 1 a.m.

Courtesy photo Lori Wood (from left), who has been a CASA Advocate for four years, sits with Alyssa Sanchez, daughter of a fellow advocate.

When CASA of Northwest Arkansas hosts its Light of Hope breakfast/luncheon on Nov. 9, it will be celebrating 20 years of service to the youth involved in cases of abuse or neglect in Washington, Benton, Carroll and Madison counties.

Judge Thomas Smith of the 19th West Judicial Circuit Court says that, in those 20 years, CASA's contribution has been enormous.

Light of Hope Breakfast and Luncheon

What: Benefit for CASA of Northwest Arkansas

When: 7:30 a.m. and noon Nov. 9

Breakfast: John Q. Hammons Convention Center, 3303 Pinnacle Hills Parkway, Rogers

Lunch: Holiday Inn Convention Center, 1500 S. 48th St., Springdale

Cost: Free

Information: (479) 725-2213

"Their reports to the court are vital," he says. "We want to know the good, the bad, the indifferent on all aspects of the case. I know that what they give me is fair, insightful and unbiased insight as to what's best for the child."

"CASA" stands for "Court Appointed Special Advocate." The national organization was founded in 1977 by Juvenile Judge David Soukup, who was distressed by the idea that he was making potentially life-or-death decisions about children's lives based solely on 15- to 20-minute court testimonies. A CASA has full access to the case he or she is assigned, forms relationships with the children and families involved and stays in close contact with the case worker, guardian ad litem and other legal representatives assigned to the case. The CASA submits detailed reports to the judge at each scheduled court date.

"I rely on CASA to provide information and to develop relationships with kids and families, to be able to get that information that most people cannot or aren't in the position to get," says Judge Smith.

"We have almost 300 advocates that are trained at this moment in time," explains CASA Executive Director Crystal Vickmark, who has been with the organization for 14 years. She calls the volunteer position "one of the most rewarding and frustrating volunteer jobs you can have."

"It's not one of those jobs where you go to the library and read to a child, or shelve books," says Vickmark. "This is an intensive volunteer experience where you spend eight to 12 hours a month helping to investigate this case for the judge and forming these relationships with the child and family. At the end of that case, when the judge stands up and says, 'Thank you to the CASA' and recognizes that you've made an impact on the case -- even more so when that child's case closes and you know they're safe, whether it's that the child is adopted into a new home and he or she is safe in a loving family, or the parents have done what they needed to do to have the child return to them -- it's an amazing feeling to know you played a part. The frustrating part is that sometimes the process takes a long time. Parents have 12 months to get things done to get a child returned, and sometimes I think it's frustrating for a volunteer to think that a child is in foster care for that time period."

Vickmark says long-term commitment to the position is important, so the CASA NWA staff is up front with potential volunteers about the intensity of the position.

"If someone is interested in volunteering, the first thing they do is come in for one of our '101' sessions," she says. "We talk about the joys and pitfalls, the tribulations, if you will, of being an advocate. We want to make sure the volunteers don't come in with blinders on." Vickmark says that the most important ingredient that makes a CASA successful is passion -- an intense desire to make a difference in the life of a child.

If volunteers are willing to take the leap and sign up for the approximately five-week training period, though, they end up making a significant difference in the life of a child who really needs someone in their corner, says Colleen Smith, director of development and marketing.

"Our advocates make recommendations for whatever the child needs," she says, using long-time advocates Elise and Marius de Waal as an example. "In the five years they have served, Elise and Marius have fought for everything from a retrieval of personal belongings that were left behind at a child's prior foster home to a reevaluation of a child's medical needs because he was being over-medicated to reuniting a sibling group who hadn't seen each other in three months."

The Light of Hope event is an opportunity for CASA NWA supporters -- as well as those that would like to know more -- to celebrate the organization's accomplishments.

"We're very excited this year," says Vickmark. "It's our 20th anniversary, so we're going to be having a lot of our founding board members and staff who will be recognized for their unwavering commitment to making sure CASA exists today. It will be our biggest event for Light of Hope, attendance-wise."

Vickmark says that the event's presenting sponsor, General Mills, makes it possible for CASA to offer both the breakfast (held at the John Q. Hammons Convention Center in Rogers) and the luncheon (held at the Holiday Inn Convention Center in Springdale) free of charge.

"After breakfast, we have a keynote speaker, Ashley Buchanan [executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for Sam's Club] who will speak about the importance of CASA, and we also have an adoptive family speaking this year about why CASA's role was so important in their child's life. For lunch, we have keynote speaker Sally Grimes [group president, prepared food, Tyson Foods Inc.], and she has an amazing story to tell."

Following the meals and presentations, an appeal for both donations and volunteers will be made. Vickmark says that last year, the event garnered around $260,000 in gross donations and 120 people who were interested in learning more about volunteering. The donations help fund staffing and training for CASA NWA.

"We were able to serve 744 children last year, and the donations from last year's Light of Hope event helped us serve 189 new children," says Vickmark. She says that volunteers are always needed. With Judge Smith's help in recruitment, Benton County has successfully linked a CASA for every case currently in its system. But, says Vickmark, that's not the case for other counties.

"For Washington County, 30 families entered the system last month," she says. "In Madison and Carroll counties, we also have a significant wait list for volunteers."

Those interested in volunteering can contact the CASA NWA offices at (479) 725-2213.

NAN Profiles on 10/29/2017