“Becoming an Advocate has given me a whole new purpose” in life not only personally but professionally. It is pushing me to seek ways to increase my advocacy and making a difference in the life of a child.
Melissa was sworn in on October 29, 2019 and was appointed to a case with siblings. In just five months we have seen the positive results of adding an advocate to a case can have on the lives of children.
Melissa was born and raised in Hanford, California. She is one of two children, and her family remains deeply rooted in this community. She has a beautiful daughter and fiancé with two children of his own. Melissa is an educator in Kings County, and she has been teaching for almost 15 years. She currently provides instruction to 7th graders in English Language Arts and History. She holds the position of Executive Board Secretary for her local teacher’s union. Melissa is a natural advocate, not only for students but staff. One of her strengths is seeing a need and developing an action plan. Melissa was moved to start an anti-bullying club “Stand for the Silent” at her middle school with a colleague. It was such a success that it evolved into an elective class. Each year her students volunteer in the community and each student participates in six presentations to the local elementary schools.
What drew you to become an Advocate? I was a previous resource (foster) parent for four years. I saw a lack of continuity, the evolution of social workers, and adults providing services, who did not really know the whole child. As an educator, I saw that balls were being dropped. Children were not being held educationally accountable. Over the years, I had students in my classes, who were in the foster care system, who did not have support in the home.
What was your AH HA moment when you knew being an advocate with CASA makes a difference in the life of a child? A couple months ago, my youth were given a 14-day notice. This means the resource family notified Human Services that they no longer were willing to house the children. After a new home was found, the children knew they needed to start packing. Although I was new to the case, and I was a new person in their life, my AH HA moment, was when the younger child asked me to come to the home and help them pack. Receiving a 14-day notice was a surprise and the children were in a very sorrowful mood. In reaching out to me, it showed how much they needed support. As we were packing, I shared that we needed to set aside one set of clothes for their last day. It was almost something foreign, they were not sure what to set aside. I could see that this was a learning moment and they were becoming aware of what they had, what they needed, and how to plan an outfit for the next day. I asked, what do you need? Pants, Shirts, Socks, etc. It was a new thought process for them. How to think ahead and learn how to plan for needs. This moment in time was a learning and bonding moment for us.
What was your biggest challenge? “Communication” Communicating with the previous resource parent was difficult. I would call, text and leave messages and it would be days before I would receive a response. I had a very hard time connecting with the children and this impacted my ability to schedule visits. When the children were planning for a move, I advocated for cell phones. I had such a hard time communicating with the previous family, I wanted the new family to know how important it is that I maintain contact. When the children arrived at the new home, they had cell phones waiting for them. We know that cell phones are not a necessity, however being in contact with my CASA children is a necessity. Now, I can communicate with the children anytime. I text them daily “Have a great day! Let me know if you need anything.” We have evolved from little contact, to daily contact. Now, the children will text me first, ask questions or even request assistance with items they need or want. This gesture of trust and inclusion has opened a door for them to begin to use their own voice and know they are being heard.
What is the most rewarding aspect of being a CASA? “Seeing the changes” When I first met the children, they never made eye contact with me. When they listened or responded they would always look down. If I asked them what they would like to do on a visit, they would just shrug their shoulders or respond with little to no preference. I learned they had never had a haircut at a barber. So, the day before their move I made appointments for a haircut. As soon as they saw the results of their new haircut, it was as if they were new persons. A sense of self-confidence was present. One of the children has dimples when they smile! You could see the light in their faces. When this could have been a devastating change, instead it was as if they had a new hope for their future. A new beginning was right before them.
You shared that CASA has given you a new purpose. What is a need that you saw that moved you to act? Having been a resource parent in the past, and hearing the stories in recent training's that children are moved from one resource home to another with their belongings in garbage bags moved me to act. This is so inappropriate. It sends a message to them, that they are not worthy or that their possessions or self is viewed as trash. I decided to create a flyer to collect suitcases or duffel bags that can be used when children are moved. Each child deserves to arrive at a new placement with pride and a sense of value. Who did you share the flyer with and what was your outcome? First, I was approved to share it out within the teacher’s union. This went out to approximately 200 teachers. Next, our Superintendent approved sending it out to administration and all classified staff. So far, we have collected over 100 bags or suitcases. I delivered my first donation to Human Services back in January. I also shared it on social media, and it has been shared out from there. I also contacted my uncle who is a retired fire chief and with his assistance, he received a donation to purchase 80 compact duffel bags. I sent the flyer to my cousin who works in law enforcement. With his assistance, I was approved to supply each police car in Hanford with one of the compact duffel bags. In partnership with the Hanford police department, they will contact me when they need to replace bags so that they are always prepared to assist in the removal of a child.
Since we are currently observing Shelter in Place, what message would you like to send about your donations? It is times like these that we are most needed. I am still accepting donations of new or gently used suitcases or duffel bags. Please keep in mind, we want our kids to feel valued, so the items need to be in good condition. If you have time and you are reorganizing and you have bags to donate, please contact me at (559) 381-0277 and I will arrange for a pick-up.
In one word, how would you summarize your experience as a CASA? “Blessed.” The experience has been so inspirational. It makes my rough days less difficult. When I think of any comparison, it helps me to put things into perspective, and humbles me. CASA and these children have given me a new-found purpose.
What advice do you have for prospective advocates? “Patience” Children: Give them time, be consistent, give options, ask opinions. Adults: Not everyone has the same level of passion as you. Actions: Plant seeds, take your time yet be persistent and balance the two, follow through, too often balls get dropped, and lastly advocate.