It was nearly seven years ago that Lompoc resident Donna Brown made the move that she now calls “one of the best things I ever did.”
Brown, the wife of Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, had spent 13 years volunteering with an organization that raised funds for disadvantaged children in the Lompoc community. After that nonprofit ceased operation, Brown said she was in search of another way to help local kids in need. It was at a Sheriff’s Office function that she said a retired sheriff’s commander started talking to her about Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, of Santa Barbara County and suggested that Brown might be a good fit for the program.
“So I went to check it out and decided I was going to give it a crack,” Brown said Monday of her 2012 start with the organization. “I went through the training, which was pretty extensive, and I loved it.
“This is one of those (volunteer positions) where you really feel like you are making a difference,” she later added.
Now, Brown and others involved with CASA of Santa Barbara County are hopeful that more people will give it that same chance, particularly in Lompoc. The organization, which has a stated mission “to assure a safe, permanent, nurturing home for every abused and/or neglected child by providing a highly trained volunteer to advocate for them in the court system,” currently has a team of 55 volunteers in the Lompoc Valley but needs more than two dozen more to address a growing wait list of children.
Kim Colby Davis, CASA's executive director, acknowledged that the volunteer work can be challenging and isn’t necessarily for everyone, but she, like others involved in the organization, stressed that it is critical and very worthwhile.
“The stories of what our children have been through can break your heart, but you have the opportunity to protect them and see that they find a safe, permanent and nurturing home,” she said. “As a CASA volunteer, you have the chance to change a child’s story, and help bring them from chaos and despair to stability and hope.”
All about children
The kids who are helped by CASA come from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances.
The current wait list in Lompoc alone has 26 names, down from 31 thanks to a new class of advocates that graduated into the program last month. Of those children, 15 are younger than 3 years old who were removed from their homes primarily because their parents were unable to care for them due to drug abuse and/or domestic violence, according to Davis.
Examples of those situations include a mother who was punched in the face by her child’s father while she held her child, and parents who drove their kids to school while under the influence of methamphetamine.
The advocates, who must first go through 35 hours of CASA-administered training, get to know the child to whom they are assigned by talking with people in that child’s life, including parents and relatives, foster parents, teachers, medical professionals, attorneys and social workers.
In addition to those discussions, the advocates are expected to meet with the child for at least one hour per week and use the information they gather to inform judges and others about the child’s needs and offer suggestions for things like permanent foster homes. The total time needed to volunteer is about 10 to 12 hours per month, Davis said.
Brown said it is that face time with the children, which she noted often greatly exceeds that one hour per week minimum, that she finds particularly fulfilling.
While some advocates prefer to meet the child in his or her home, Brown said she likes to take the child out to a park or to the library or movies. Sometimes, she said, they’ll go out to eat or visit a horse farm.
“Whatever the child is interested in, I try to make sure we connect that way,” she said. “You get very attached to (the child) and they get very attached to you. It’s a really wonderful experience.”
Making that difference
The volunteers’ advocacy for the children goes beyond the courtroom and foster-care situations.
Brown noted that advocates can also provide help with tutoring for academics, as well as aid in getting counseling or mental health services for the children.
Sarah Bleyl, the director of the Lompoc Public Library System, was among the class of 12 new Lompoc-based advocates that was sworn in during a Feb. 21 ceremony at Lompoc Superior Court.
Bleyl, who noted she had been aware of CASA for several years, said she was motivated to join the organization after seeing the level of need.
“When I saw how many children in Lompoc were waiting for an advocate, I knew the time was now,” she said.
Bleyl said she felt like the training was comprehensive and helped give her a good idea of what to expect going forward. While some might find the situations involving the children to be too emotionally taxing or overwhelming, Bleyl said she doesn’t foresee that being an issue for her.
“I know that there will be difficult situations that I’ll face as [an advocate], but I’m trying to focus on the kids I will be able to help,” she said. “They are in a situation that is not their fault and they need an advocate for them as they are going through that difficult situation. If I can help them in any way, it will be more than worth any discomfort I might feel.”
Davis said that mentality is shared by many of the volunteers.
“People start volunteering with CASA for many different reasons, but something that rings true for all of them is the care and compassion to help a child,” she said. “For our empty nesters, it’s a chance to use their knowledge and experience of raising their own kids to help benefit a child in need. Young professionals get involved to grow their experience in a court setting. It’s also a great fit for those who want to help children in foster care but are not able to open their home to a child.
“The key seems to be that CASA volunteers want to do something meaningful in their community, something to benefit a child,” she later added.
How to help
Overall, CASA has a 14-person staff for its countywide operation, which has about 309 volunteers advocating for more than 450 children. Davis noted that it can be difficult to recruit and train advocates throughout the county, so she said the organization works intentionally at being present and active in each community to find volunteers.
The need for more advocates is particularly critical in North County, according to Davis. Although Santa Maria has more advocates than Lompoc — 80 to 55 — the 40-person wait list in Santa Maria is also longer. The agency is currently able to provide for every child in South County with its 62 Santa Barbara-based advocates, she said.
To boost recruiting in North County, Davis said that CASA has been more active in community events.
She said that male advocates are particularly needed in Lompoc, as men account for just nine of the 55 total volunteers, while half of the children served are boys.
“We have targeted our marketing efforts to help us find more Lompoc volunteers, but no matter what we do, our best tool for finding volunteers is word of mouth,” Davis said. “Most of the 23 new volunteers found out about CASA through a friend or co-worker.”
Upcoming volunteer information sessions, a schedule for which can be found at https://sbcasa.org/volunteer, include:
- In Santa Maria at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, March 7;
- In Buellton at 2 p.m. Monday, March 11;
- In Lompoc at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 13; and
- In Lompoc at noon Thursday, March 28.
The sessions will take place at the Santa Maria Office at 2125 S. Broadway, Suite 106; at the Lompoc office, located in the Launchpad at 1010 North H St.; and at the Starbucks in Buellton, at 235 E. Highway 246, Suite 102.
Other times can be arranged by emailing email@example.com.
Volunteers must be 21 or older and able to pass a background check. Volunteers are asked to commit to see their cases through to closing. A case can average about 18 months.
To anyone who may be considering it, Brown had a very direct message: “Don’t hesitate — jump in.”
“I think it would be the best decision they ever made,” she said, referring to a potential volunteer. “I really do. It’s so worthwhile and you just really feel like you helped make a difference for a child in need.”