New court advocates hope to make a difference for Berks children
CASA of Berks County swears in fifth class of volunteers for a total team of 48 court-appointed special advocates.
WRITTEN BY STEPHANIE WEAVER
After spending 16 years helping more than 160 low-income families purchase their first homes, Janine D. Torres is hoping she can make a difference in at least one child's life as a CASA volunteer.
The Exeter Township widow said she's always enjoyed helping people and has a soft spot for kids, but didn't feel she could handle adoption or foster care at this point in her life. So when her friend Christine E. Ahrens told her about CASA of Berks County, Torres knew it would be a perfect fit.
CASA, which stands for court-appointed special advocate, is a program that trains volunteers to work with neglected children in court cases to determine what is in the best interest of keeping them safe and nurtured.
"I'm really excited about the possibility of helping them find hope," Torres, 64, said.
Torres and Ahrens were sworn in as official CASAs with seven other women during a special ceremony Jan. 17 at the Berks County Services Center.
The group made up the fifth class of volunteers since CASA of Berks County branched out as a standalone nonprofit organization about three years ago. The program was previously managed under other local nonprofits.
Lisa AM Unrath, who became the new executive director of CASA of Berks County in November, said the program now has 48 CASAs and has helped 70 children in the past three years.
Unrath said she's always done a lot of volunteer work and got involved with CASA after retiring from a career in education. She said her parents were involved in the program when she was a child and she had students who benefited from it.
"This is something near and dear to me," she said.
CASAs serve as an extension of the eyes and ears of the judge in dependency court cases. Volunteers undergo more than 30 hours of training that includes observation of dependency court hearings. After being sworn in, a CASA is appointed by a judge to represent a child in a selected case.
The CASA researches the child's reports and conducts interviews with the child, parents, family members, teachers, doctors, social workers and others. CASAs also spend time with each child, monitoring court proceedings and court-ordered services and spending at least three hours a month simply meeting with the child.
The CASA then compiles a report for the judge with information from the research and interviews about what the CASA believes is in the best interest of the child. A CASA has one case at a time and stays with it until it is resolved.
Christa Yeager was sworn in with the first class of CASAs in March 2016 and now serves as the volunteer manager for CASA of Berks County. Now on her third case, Yeager said the experience has been different than she expected in a good way and very fulfilling.
She said it's great to look back and see the difference a CASA makes for children by advocating for important things like educational needs but also experiences like dance or cooking lessons that help bring the child a sense of normalcy.
"As a CASA, we can come in and advocate for that kind of stuff," she said. "It's just great."
New CASA Donna L. Garges managed to sign her oath despite breaking her right hand earlier in the day. With a fresh resolution to take the steps every day, Garges, 54, of Gilbertsville, said she tripped while rushing up a flight at work and fell on her hand.
She said she found out about the program through an email from the United Way about various volunteer opportunities in the area.
"This just sounded like something that was fascinating and something that I really wanted to do to help children," she said. "There's so many kids in need. Reading the stories they have about the CASAs and how they changed children's lives, I thought, 'I want to do that.'"
Garges said she was feeling a mixture of nervousness and excitement as she prepared to be assigned to her first case.
"The stories will probably be difficult to listen to, but after you get to know them and the child trusts you, you can see you're actually making a difference," she said.
The new CASA volunteers
The following individuals were sworn in during a January ceremony to serve as court-appointed special advocates in cases involving abused and neglected children.
Christine E. Ahrens
Donna L. Garges
Stacey E. Messing
Cherrie A. Sage
Janine D. Torres
Upcoming CASA events
CASA of Berks County hosts monthly informational sessions about the program and how to become a volunteer at the CASA office, 845 N. Park Road, Wyomissing.
An RSVP is required because there is limited seating.
The next meeting is Feb. 19 from 11 a.m. to noon. There will also be a meeting March 11 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.