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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.

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