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CASA continues to help kids, despite economic woes

Date: 7/7/2009

By Lori Szepelak

Correspondent



HOLYOKE -- As state-funded organizations struggle to stay afloat in these tough economic times, some like CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Hampden County hope to continue operating on a "shoestring budget" if necessary.

During a June 24 CASA of Hampden County volunteer appreciation dinner at the Delaney House, Keith Hedlund, program coordinator, did not try to sugarcoat the obvious -- times are tough financially. CASA of Hampden County is funded through the Trial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and serves the juvenile courts in Springfield and Holyoke.

Hedlund explained during an interview with Reminder Publications that because CASA of Hampden County receives its operating funds directly from the state budget, they rely on the funding for 100 percent of its expenses. At press time, the Legislature had approved its version of the state's budget which did not contain any money for any CASA programs in Massachusetts. The other CASA programs are in Northampton, Pittsfield, Worcester, Lawrence and Boston.

"The Legislature was not picking on CASA," Hedlund said. "The budget is so bad this year that over 80 similar programs were not funded statewide."

Since CASA of Hampden County is one of more than 42 programs managed by the Center for Human Development (CHD) in Springfield, they received a lifeline. Susan Alston, director of development, marketing and public relations for CHD, noted that CHD has agreed to fund the CASA program for the fiscal year 2010. Alston added that it will be necessary to reduce expenses by possibly relocating the offices at another one of the CHD program sites and to look for funding through grants and private and public support.

Hedlund also noted that CASA is able to apply for emergency funding of $10,000 through the National CASA Association.

Hedlund, along with Cassandra Hildreth, coordinator of volunteers, works with more than 60 volunteers who serve as advocates for children who have a case in Hampden County Juvenile Court. Judges assign a CASA in cases where the child may not have anyone in their lives who can effectively advocate for them in the child welfare system.

During a social hour prior to the event, several volunteers were vocal about the need for CASA to remain in this region, including Jo Anne McPhaul of Chicopee.

"Children are our most important asset," McPhaul said, adding that an advocate's role helps families "navigate through a horrible time in their lives."

Westfield resident Audrelee Dallam-Murphy, Ph.D., assistant professor of criminal justice at Westfield State College and a four-year CASA volunteer, echoed those sentiments.

"We have a keen sense of what the problems are and can help eliminate the red tape," she said.

Denise Sullivan, a six-year CASA volunteer who resides in Chicopee, also noted that "social workers come and go but CASA is consistent on the case." Sullivan added that a child will build a relationship with a CASA volunteer once a relationship of trust is established.

Following dinner, speakers included Judge Gail Garinger, Office of the Child Advocate, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and several certificates of excellence and special recognition plaques were awarded. Individuals receiving certificates included Carol McMinn, Jaime Santiago, Rick Robar and Amanda Tetreault.

"These volunteers all went above and beyond to ensure that the best interests of their children were served," Hedlund said.

Ayesha Camafo, who began her first CASA case nine months ago working with siblings who have been in foster care for more than five years, received the Brilliant Beginnings Award.

"Ayesha has worked diligently to be sure that all options of securing safe, permanent homes for these children have been explored while keeping their strong bonds to their biological family intact," Hedlund said.

Gina Sarnelli, a CASA volunteer for three years, received the Gene Sullivan Award for Exceptional Commitment to Children.

"Gina makes sure that the children she works with are never lost in the shuffle of the system," Hedlund said. "She approaches each child's situation with a huge heart and a determined mind."

Determination is one way to describe not only Hedlund and Hildreth, but their legion of volunteers who selflessly donate their time and talents to ensuring that children across our region have a voice.

For more information on CASA of Hampden County, visit www.casahampdencounty.org or call 781-2272. Tax-deductible donations are always welcome and will be used for recruitment of new volunteers and emergency support to the children who are assigned to CASA.