Casablanca in the Hills helps children in crisis

By From page B1 | September 18, 2013

Too often the tiny voices crying out during the horror created by drug and alcohol abuse in the family home are never heard, and the vicious cycle continues as the children grow into adults with problems that plague society and ruin what could have been productive lives.

In El Dorado County, an organization with a stellar lineup of volunteers turn an ear toward those small voices, extending a hand to frightened, desperate children who have no one else to listen.

Saturday, Sept. 21, Court Appointed Special Advocates program volunteers and supporters will gather in El Dorado Hills for CASA’s largest fundraising effort of the year, a gala that will find attendees sipping fine wines and craft beers, along with enjoying hors d’oeuvres and dinner and dancing to the music of the popular Azuar band.

Casablanca in the Hills will begin at 6 p.m. at Lakehills Church, 7000 Rossmore Lane in El Dorado Hills, and also will feature live and silent auctions. Casablanca-type dress is suggested, but not required, with tickets at $95 per person, $700 per table.

Retired engineer Don Vanderkar of Placerville looks forward each year to CASA’s annual fundraiser, even though the longtime volunteer finds his calendar filled with similar events.

“We go to the CASA galas every time we can,” said Vanderkar, 73, referring to himself and his wife, Margaret. “I have been to a lot of fundraisers, and I can say without hesitation that CASA’s is the most successful as far as the energy and enthusiasm involved. It’s always an enjoyable evening, and what we particularly look forward to is a ‘success story’ from someone who has been helped by CASA.”

Vanderkar, who has been a volunteer with CASA for almost 20 years, recounted one such story himself, involving a young man whose case was assigned to him when the boy was 11 years old.

“He had been in foster homes much of his life, and had just been pulled out of yet another one when his case came to me,” said Vandkerkar from his Country Club Drive home. “His mom was on drugs, and he never knew his father. They were about to kick him out of school due to behavioral problems, so my first task was to talk to his principal.”

Vanderkar was successful at that effort, and he soon learned that part of the youth’s problem was that his mom had completely rejected her son, making it clear she never wanted to see him again. He was a ward of the court, and his sojourns in foster home after foster home left much to be desired, Vanderkar said.

“He went through 12 foster homes eventually, and a couple of them were actually good, functional, but for various reasons (a heart attack in one instance, the foster parents leaving the country in another) they weren’t working out.

“I was the only consistency in the boy’s life.”

With Vanderkar’s willingness to take him to movies, out for a bite to eat or just down to the American River to skip stones, the boy managed to get through his high school years and acquire a GED. Although he has not had contact with the young man in several years, Vanderkar said he considers him a success story.

“He aged out of the system (at 18) but I have heard he’s making it just fine.”

Vanderkar added that he finds himself “between kids” currently, and has let CASA officials know he is ready again to try to help another youngster.

After nearly two decades, why would he take on the task yet one more time?

“I had someone who helped me when I was a kid,” he said simply. “Being a CASA volunteer is rewarding on many levels, and it’s a privilege to be assigned cases by the courts and hopefully provide some stability in their lives.”

In addition to providing a reliable adult role model, CASA volunteers’ greatest importance comes from working as the “eyes and ears” of the local courts, where their assessments and evaluations of children and their situations are heavily relied upon by judges in rendering their life-changing decisions in family and dependency court.

In El Dorado County the CASA program, which began in the early 1990s, each year helps between 350 and 400 children. The 150 volunteers each dedicates 30 hours to initial training, with a dozen more hours a year of continual training.

Here’s where stark reality comes in: Ten percent of the funding comes from the government. That means fully 90 percent of the money needed to make a difference in desperate kids’ lives must be raised by the local community.

That sobering fact is brought home every day for CASA Executive Director John Adams, who runs the seven-member CASA staff from an office on Main Street in Placerville. Just outside his office door hangs a sign that proclaims: “Children are to be seen, heard and believed.”

“It’s a challenge,” he said frankly when asked about the organization’s budget needs, which amount to roughly a half-million dollars a year. “We want to help every child who needs it, but we can’t serve them all right now. Despite the numbers of those we are able to help, there are 75 to 100 kids a year who are not served.”

If not aided by CASA or any other resource that can set them firmly on the right track, half of the foster children who “age out” of the system when they reach 18 become homeless within the first year-and-a-half, according to national statistics. Stats also show that drug and alcohol abuse, incarceration, mental illness, teen pregnancy and those involved in illegal sex trafficking share a disturbing commonality.

“Fifty to 60 percent of the time, those situations involve kids who came out of the foster care system,” said Adams, 55, who has been executive director of the local CASA program for more than two years. He came to CASA from the corporate world, Adams said, and found that working in the non-profit arena appealed to him as an “encore career” because he had experience advocating for his own child, who is autistic.

While the statistics may appear daunting, Adams focuses on the more positive flip-side.

“There is a 110-page scientific study that shows that kids who are helped by CASA are half as likely to be in long-term foster care,” he said, adding that the same study shows that when children are aided by a CASA volunteer, there are “three to five times” more services available to the child because of the expert assistance.

“The volunteers become an officer of the court,” he said, “with all the rights and responsibilities that go along with that, including privileged access to school and medical records of the child, any social services records. The volunteer is able to give a comprehensive, complete view for the courts.”

Fully 10 percent of the local CASA budget comes from the annual gala. As another sign on the wall in the CASA office says, “A hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in or the kind of car I drove, but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”

For more information about CASA or the Casablanca in the Hills gala call (530) 622-9882.

Pat Lakey


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