February 10, 1996 is a date that sticks in my mind. On that cold, snowy evening in the mid-nineties, I discovered an organization that would change my life’s course — February 10, 1996 is the day that I learned about CASA.
You might wonder why such a date would be so important and why would it be an absolutely paradigm-shifting event. At the “ripe old” age of 22, I was introduced to the child welfare and foster care systems. Although I had always heard of “foster care,” “child abuse,” and “adoptions,” I didn’t fully understand what they meant. Nor did I realize the ramifications of these events on the children who had to live through them. During the hour-long orientation session, I learned the power of community activism was not only alive in Pittsburgh, but that it was flourishing and making a difference to abused and neglected children. After hearing the words spoken that evening, I knew that I had to become involved.
So began my personal journey. I started as a CASA volunteer that Spring, advocating for five children who had been involved with the ‘system’ for twelve years. Then I joined the CASA staff, helping to recruit, train and supervise volunteers as they navigated a harrowing child welfare system on behalf of their “CASA kids.” For the past sixteen years, I have had the honor to lead this remarkable agency in its service to children.
Now, twenty-six years later, I am proud to say that we have trained almost 1,000 Pittsburghers to serve nearly 2,000 of our community’s children. It is a powerful statement to provide so many meaningful gifts to the most vulnerable and, at times, forgotten members of our community.
I am privileged to be a part of an organization that, at its very core, is about giving. There are no two greater gifts than to help those in need and to offer that help with the selfless measure of volunteerism. Our volunteers’ donations of their time, resources, heart, and soul are truly amazing. It is truly a source of inspiration for me to see the smile on a volunteer’s face when they know that were it not for them, an important service wouldn’t have occurred; a child wouldn’t have received what they needed; a child wouldn’t have been safe.
I think of countless volunteers who sacrifice time away from their jobs, their families, their own children, to be a powerful voice for a child who, but a few months ago, might have been a stranger to them. Without a CASA volunteer advocate, the children we serve could have become just another statistic in the world of child maltreatment – 1 million children abused in America each year; 3,000 Allegheny County children involved with court because of maltreatment by their caregivers; four American children dead each day at the hands of the people who are supposed to love and protect them.
But, a child’s life turns out differently when someone steps forward and speaks out on their behalf, giving voice to the child. Volunteers give personal attention to children who could otherwise become another grim statistic. Because of their willingness to step forward and act, children don’t fall through the cracks of our overwhelmed child welfare systems which are set up to protect them.
Despite the success that we have witnessed in the past decade, our task remains incomplete. As I write this letter, children need our specialized advocacy; individualized attention that will affect their futures, their very lives. Won’t you join our mission of providing a strong, committed, and constant voice for abused and neglected children? In whatever capacity you can give, our children need your resources, your time and your attention. They deserve it, and as fellow humans, it is the least that we can do.
Melissa Protzek, Esq.