Since 2009, Court Appointed Special Advocates of the Heartland has served the Hardin County region through providing neglected and abused children in the area with a court-appointed advocate. CASA of the Heartland Executive Director Debbie Smith has been working with the organization since the beginning.
Smith’s affiliation with CASA began when she volunteered to become an advocate. She said she was disturbed by the number of child-abuse cases she read about in the news and heard about CASA of the Heartland from a friend.
Smith said she was among the first group of advocates to be trained at the organization. The organization now provides four training sessions a year and volunteers are required to undergo 30 hours of training in addition to court observation.
Smith said she had experience working with children as the preschool director at Northside Baptist Church. She said she previously worked as a claims adjuster and wanted to be more involved in the community.
“I think I’ve always had this yearning to feel like I was doing more,” she said.
Smith served as a CASA advocate, a position which involves gathering information about the child and finding cooperative solutions between individuals and organizations in the child’s life. Smith said one of the biggest responsibilities for an advocate is to simply be there for the child.
“They just need somebody in their corner,” she said. “They need somebody who says, ‘I’ll be there for you, I’ll support you, I’ll listen to you, I’ll speak up for you’ and do it.”
Smith became a part-time support staff employee for CASA in 2012 and served as an advocate coordinator. Smith said it’s important for members of CASA’s staff to have volunteer experience with the organization, noting that all five of the current staff members once were volunteers.
“Every staff member has been a volunteer and that’s essential because if we’re going to support the volunteers the way we want to and the way we need to, we need to have done what they do,” she said.
Smith stepped into the executive director role in 2016. Patti Mayhew, advocate coordinator at CASA, said Smith hasn’t lost her connection to volunteers, despite her increase in administrative duties.
“She’s very approachable,” Mayhew said. “The advocates feel like they can at any time call and she will give them that time.”
Smith said she’s seen an increase in community visibility and an increase of volunteers at CASA over the years. She said the organization met their goal of more than 60 volunteers in 2017.
Because of the frequent home changes foster children can experience, Smith said volunteers are sometimes the only stable adult figures abused and neglected children in the community encounter. She said the volunteers have the unique ability to put their efforts into making a big impression on these children.
“CASA volunteers are kind of uniquely positioned because our volunteers have one case and one sibling group, and they can focus all their time and energy on that,” she said. “I think that’s where we can really make a difference.”
Patsy Whitehead, board chairwoman for CASA, said Smith has the passion necessary for her role in the organization.
“Right now, we have over 120 local children waiting for a CASA volunteer and I’m certain Debbie has that on her mind at all times,” Whitehead said. “Debbie definitely has a heart and a passion for her job.”
Smith said putting herself into the shoes of the children the organization serves is a daily motivator.
“I try to imagine what it would be like to just be pulled out of your home one day and go live with total strangers you’ve never met before and sleep in a bed you’ve never slept in and there’s nobody there you know,” she said. “That’s what keeps me going.”
Thank you to The News-Enterprise for the article and featuring Debbie as Wednesday's Woman! The above article can be viewed at http://www.thenewsenterprise.com/features/wednesdays_woman/child-advocacy-motivating-to-casa-leader/article_45b0ec90-a382-5820-9b97-8a2b09a21b00.html