CASA volunteer a voice for children

Local United Way effort has reached 23 percent of goal

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When Joan Creek retired from teaching after 42 years, she found a new way to help young people: as a volunteer for CASA for Kids, Court Appointed Special Advocates who represent children’s interests in court.

“It has been incredibly rewarding. I had no idea there were so many children who needed a voice,” said Creek, who has been a CASA volunteer for three years.

CASA for Kids, a service of the United Way, is a nationally recognized nonprofit organization serving children who find themselves involved with the court system through no fault of their own. Currently, more than 900 CASA programs are in operation nationwide.

“For some of these kids, it’s the very first time anyone has taken the time to sit down and listen to them and care about what happens to them,” said Creek.

A judge appoints a CASA worker to a case when he or she has reviewed it and decided it would be in the child’s best interest. Each volunteer makes a commitment to remain with the case until it is completed.

This means remaining on the case until the child is placed in a safe, permanent home.

Volunteers undergo a rigorous application process that includes background checks, interviews and evaluations by three different agencies. They must complete a 40-hour training program and maintain up-to-date continuing education throughout their involvement with the program.

“It’s a major, major commitment,” Creek said. “You’re dealing with children’s lives here.”

CASA for Kids is just one of the many agencies and services that benefit from the local United Way campaign. “Listen to Your Heart” is the theme of the 2010 United Way fund drive, which benefits a variety of non-profit agencies that help our neighbors throughout Northwest Montana.

The monetary goal for the campaign is $825,000. Last year, United Way Member Agencies helped nearly 46,000 people in need.

So far, United Way has raised $187,929 or 23 percent of its goal.

Ninety-nine percent of all money raised stays in local communities.

Donors may choose how to donate, including cash, payroll deductions, charging to a  credit card, direct bill, or through an automatic bank transfer.

Donors also may designate which member agencies or non-affiliated partner agencies or the Montana Shares Federation they want to receive their gift. For more information on the United Way campaign, call 752-7266. Donations may be mailed to P.O. Box 7217, Kalispell, MT 59904.

Creek has handled three cases as a CASA volunteer, and each of them has lasted at least a year and a half. Sometimes the cases overlap, and she expects her current case to last at least another year.

She gets to know the children, parents and others who are involved, including therapists, foster parents, teachers, case workers and concerned friends.

When she has a full picture, she writes a court report that outlines the facts and makes a recommendation.

“The stories are just heartbreaking,” she said. “The most rewarding part for me so far has been the successful reunification, when the parent wakes up and takes charge.”

Being a CASA volunteer takes a great deal of time and commitment, she said, but the rewards are great.

“You just fall in love with these kids,” she said. “It takes a long time to build trust, but once you’ve built it, it’s a very special relationship.”

Creek said the United Way has been extremely supportive of the CASA program, helping provide whatever is needed, from school supplies to Christmas gifts for children who may never have had a happy Christmas before.

“I feel comfortable calling there and asking for whatever they need,” she said.

Current United Way Member Agencies are Big Brothers and Sisters, Boy Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs of Glacier Country, Eagle Transit, First Call for Help-Net,  Flathead CARE, Flathead Food Bank, Flathead Youth Home, Girl Scouts, Head Start, Literacy Volunteers, Mental Health Crisis Line, Nurturing Center, Retired & Senior Volunteer Program, Samaritan House, Sinopah House, Special Friends Advocacy Program, Summit Independent Living Center and the Violence Free Crisis Line/Abbie Shelter.

Services supported by the United Way include CASA for Kids, Disaster Care Services, Gateway Community Center, Leaders of Tomorrow, Montana 2-1-1 Database Project, the United Way Volunteer Center and Youth Suicide Prevention Project.

The United Way also supports emergency food and shelter programs: Bread Basket, Community Harvest Food Bank, DOVES, Helping Hands, Hot Springs Food Pantry, Lake County Mental Health Center, Libby Food Pantry, Mission Valley Food Pantry, Neighbors in Need, Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry, Salvation Army Feeding Program, Thompson Falls Food Pantry and Troy Food Pantry.

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