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1979 alumnae connect via CASA, foster parenting

In May 29, 2019, edition, the eVision profiled three classmates from the Class of 1981 and a 1980 alumna who were involved with the Court Appointed Special Advocate program also known as CASA. That story prompted these two 1979 alumnae to share their stories.

Mary (Saam) DeHart ’79 and Michele (Peak) Lewallen ’79 each felt a calling to help children in need. For Lewallen, it was an ad for CASA volunteers during a jury trial that started the pull on her heart. For DeHart, it was a continuing call from God to become a foster parent. The two live in different states and play different roles in the child welfare system, but both have witnessed how the CASA program changes lives.

Lewallen is retired from a career teaching Health and Stress Management at Antelope Valley College and living in Salinas, Caif. She moved to Salinas with her husband, Willard, when they retired in 2014. Soon after they moved, she was called up for jury duty and that day repeatedly watched the public service announcement seeking volunteers for the CASA program. She knew it was something she could do, but it took a few years before she had time to complete the six-week training program, she said. In 2016, she took the training and received her first of two cases.

DeHart transferred to the Indianapolis area four years ago, taking a job in the health care division of Philips. Her previous role required a lot of travel, and this move was supposed to take her off the road, she said. Within a couple of years, she was once again traveling for work, but looking back she realizes the move was for a different purpose — to allow her to become foster mom to the 5-year-old girl she will soon adopt and name Desi Elizabeth, the middle name after DeHart’s mother.

“In retrospect, I thought the move was to get me off the road for my job, but really it was to get the kids and to be involved,” DeHart said. “Here we all try to control our destiny, but it’s always in someone else’s hands.”

DeHart is raising her teenage godson and became a foster parent a year after moving to Noblesville. Desi was 2, and her half-brother was 4. She fostered them both for awhile until the boy’s needs were more than she could handle as a single parent. In recent months, she has felt the call to adopt Desi and is looking forward to the day when it will be final.

The journey hasn’t been easy, and she’s grateful for the local CASA volunteers who advocated for Desi and her half-brother. As a foster parent, she is bound to follow state regulations and even to return a foster child to his or her parents if ordered to do so. The CASA volunteers work hard to ensure the court, the system, and the foster families do what’s best for the child, she said.

“Hats off to anyone who’s helping care or however they’re paying their talents forward to help another human being,” DeHart said. “It’s very challenging at times, but it’s very rewarding. I’m just so lucky to be a part of it.”

In recent months, she said she felt called to adopt Desi, a decision that is continually validated by those who’ve witnessed how the little girl has blossomed into a happy, outgoing child – a far cry from the quiet, withdrawn toddler who first came into her home.

“When she looks up at you with those eyes and talks about (DeHart as) her family, I know no different,” DeHart said. “I don’t know any different way, and that’s why I know I’ve got to do this because she is my family, maybe not by blood but by every other means. I would never want her to feel any other way.”

DeHart and Lewallen reconnected via Facebook in recent years and look forward to catching up in person at their 40th class reunion Sept. 6-7. DeHart drew on Lewallen’s experience as a CASA volunteer when she had various questions as a foster parent.

Lewallen is on her second CASA assignment, and both girls were about 10 years old when she became their volunteer advocate. She spends about 20 to 30 hours a month on her CASA duties, from outings like going to the movies or out for ice cream to attending court hearings or team meetings for the child. Most of the time is spent on those fun activities, which “gives us the important opportunity to have fun and let the kid enjoy being a kid, even while their family is in crisis,” she said.

She has found that as a CASA she builds a relationship with the child as well as her foster parents, social workers, attorneys, and to some degree, her parents.

“I always felt like I played an important role,” Lewallen said. “I guess it’s because you’re a volunteer, people trust you more or talk to you more because they know you don’t have a vested interest in the outcome. You’re there because you care.”

Lewallen said it is rewarding knowing she is making a “difference in the child’s life.”

It was especially rewarding recently when the girl she was been working with asked the judge to allow Lewallen to become one of her permanent relationships, she said.

“As long as she’s willing, I could be involved in her life for the rest of her life,” Lewallen said.

Lewallen said it was a special moment to hear of that request, but it was even more touching when the girl expressed the desire to one day serve in the same role.

“I knew during the case with her that I really made a difference in her life when she told everybody that when she grows up she wants to be a CASA,” Lewallen said.

For both women, helping those in need is a matter of living out their faith – and continuing what they learned while students at Providence. And they both encourage others to do the same.

For those considering becoming a CASA volunteer, Lewallen offers this advice: “Each child is different, each case is different. You’re thinking on your feet. But think with your heart.

“Common sense would tell you it’s time to cut your losses and it’s time to get out. Sometimes it really seems hopeless, and that’s where faith comes in. You have to use your heart and everything pretty much instilled in us at Providence. A lot of this is a leap of faith, trusting that you’re doing the right thing.”

DeHart has lived that advice out too as a foster parent.

“I don’t think I’d be anywhere I am today if it wasn’t for the love and support of my family and faith and things that I continue to do to live my Fourth Day out, and that all started at Providence,” DeHart said.

CASA volunteers find PHS connection

By coincidence, three members of the Class of 1981 and one from the Class of 1980 are helping children by working or volunteering for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Floyd and Washington Counties. Lorie (Zoeller) Edwards ’81, is a staff advocate for the organization that currently is under the umbrella of St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities. Sue (Crone) Glordan ’81, Maria (Kinder) Triplett ’81, and Ann (Kaiser) Day ’80 are all volunteer advocates.

Maria (Kinder) Triplett ’81, left, and Sue (Crone) Glordan ’81, right, recently realized both are CASA volunteer advocates for Floyd and Washington counties. Classmate Lorie (Zoeller) Edwards ’81, center, is a CASA staff advocate.

To hear their stories, however, it seems that God had a hand in calling them to be part of the agency in order to serve as a voice for abused or neglected children in court. Edwards first became a CASA volunteer in 1988 while in law school in California after doing a class project on the then-fledgling organization. Once she got married and started a family, she no longer had time to volunteer until three years ago when she reconnected with CASA and eventually left her job as a paralegal to work for the agency full time. She said she always enjoyed working with children, and the time was right for a change.

“After 30 years in the legal field, I wanted to get back to my passion for working with kids,” said Edwards, who has a caseload of 60 children in Floyd and Washington counties.

Glordan and Triplett are classmates of Edwards, but their connection had little to do with their initial call to become a CASA volunteer. Three years ago, Glordan was looking for “a new volunteer opportunity that would take me out of my comfort zone a bit” and allow her “to connect with those I was serving on a more personal level,” she said. A Sunday homily from a visiting priest on service and answering God’s call resonated with her, and after Mass, she shared with parishioner Brenda Smith Falkenstein ’78 how it had touched her. Falkenstein, who serves on the St. Elizabeth board, invited her to the human service agency’s open house later that week. There, Glordan learned about CASA and immediately signed up.

“I think God’s hand in finding the opportunity was there,” Glordan said.

Triplett signed up in 2017 after reading a newspaper article about the agency’s growing need for volunteers as the number of children in foster care continued to rise due to the opioid crisis. She didn’t know that Glordan was a volunteer until they each ended up representing her CASA child in court on the same day.

Day recently signed up and completed her four weekly training sessions. She heard about the need for CASA volunteers while attending the St. Elizabeth Gala a few years ago. With her youngest in college, she was looking for more volunteer opportunities but wanted to do more research first. She reached out to Glordan as well as CASA volunteer Pamela (Lilly) Kraft ’77 and the Hon. J. Terrence Cody ’67, a Floyd County Circuit Court judge, who each answered her “many questions,” Day said.

Edwards said it’s not unusual for people to be reluctant to volunteer as a CASA advocate.

“A lot of volunteers are scared off by the term abused and neglected kids,” Edwards said. “They say, ‘Oh, I can’t do that. It’s too hard. It’s too sad,’ but the majority of these kids are in the system because their parents have made bad decisions, because of drugs or criminal activity, or just not being the parents they need them to be.”

Those who do volunteer become an advocate for the child in the court system. The Department of Child Services often focuses on the parent and reuniting the family, while CASA volunteers work to learn the children’s needs in order to speak up for them in court.

Volunteers typically interact with a child on at least a monthly basis and sometimes visit the child’s teachers and others to help determine the child’s needs. CASA works to match children with adults whose career or life situation may be of particular help to the child. Those with more free time can be assigned several cases, while those with limited time can represent only one child at a time.

“We can use anybody who has just a little bit of free time up to somebody who has a lot of free time,” Edwards said. “It just depends on the person, but we can use anybody who has any amount of time and we’ll make it work somehow.”

The agency is still in need of volunteers and has about 200 children without an advocate.

“Now is an ideal time to get people involved,” Edwards said.

For several years, CASA of Floyd and Washington Counties has been under the auspices of St. Elizabeth, but now it has grown to the point of being able to file for its own nonprofit status and will be hiring more staff. The agency will continue to rely on volunteers, however.

Triplett, Glordan, and Day all find the volunteer work rewarding.

Triplett said she likes “knowing that I am making a difference in a young person’s life during a very difficult and traumatic time.”

Glordan said she especially likes “being a consistent person in their life, listening, spending time with them, [and] encouraging them.”

The grandmother of the child in Glordan’s first case pointed out the importance of having children having multiple people in their lives willing to give their time and their care, and Glordan continues to recall that statement.

“It can be as simple as that,” Glordan said. “You can make an impact just by being present.”

Working with the adults in the children’s lives also is rewarding. Glordan enjoys working with the teachers, social workers, and counselors who are part of the team to help the children heal and grow. She also has found herself empathizing with their parents or guardians, who often “are struggling in ways I never have,” she said, noting “that has been a real growth experience for me. When you truly get to know people and know their life story, it’s easier to have more compassion and less judgement.  CASA is a program where you can really put your faith in action.”

Day, who is working on her first case, is finding it so fulfilling so far. Although such experience isn’t a requirement, she feels more confidence as an advocate thanks to her nursing background and experience in child and adolescent psychology. She credits Providence with first instilling in her “a desire to give back to my community” – and appreciates the connections within the alumni community that helped provide the advice she needed when she was first considering volunteering with CASA.

Edwards is hoping more alumni will do as her classmates and Day have done and seek more information or offer to volunteer.  The agency occasionally offers Meet & Greet sessions, but those interested can reach out directly to Edwards at 502-291-1837 or lorie@floydwashingtoncasa.org.

Even young alumni can help. Edwards’ daughter, Ashlyn ’15, is a volunteer advocate in Indianapolis. She started volunteering two years ago as a sophomore at Butler University studying philosophy and French. Ashlyn will be ending her volunteering in a few months after earning her degree this month and committing to move to France in September to teach under contract with the French government for a year. So Edwards knows that if a college student can find time, other alumni can too.

“I’m appealing to the kindness and compassion of my Providence family to join CASA in helping the children of our community,” Edwards said.

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