Volunteers Are the Backbone of CASA of Caroline

This column visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore. Perhaps unknown to many of us, these individuals have had their lives transformed by the missions of these organizations and are giving back in unique ways to better our world. Amelia Blades Steward has been a freelance writer in our community for more than 20 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a great need in our communities. We often focus on the funds required to help support efforts such as food distribution, shelter, mental health services, as well as COVID-19 testing and vaccines. We sometimes forget, however, to discuss another important kind of support that is also needed in delivering services today – volunteers.

“One of the areas of increased need caused by COVID-19 pandemic is a rise in child abuse and neglect. Anxiety about health, education, and finances is high. Children aren’t seeing teachers, counselors, and other adults who normally raise concerns about their well-being,” comments Amy Horne, Director of Outreach and Partnerships for CASA of Caroline, Inc.

CASA of Caroline, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the best interest of all abused and neglected children who are in the Caroline County court system through no fault of their own. The backbone of the organization is the volunteer advocates who are trained to make assessments and recommendations to the court on behalf of these children.

“The role of a CASA volunteer is more vital now than ever. Our volunteers are the advocates who represent the best interests of an abused or neglected child in the courts. They are the ones who help a child navigate the legal system. They are the ones who provide stability in the life of a child in foster care. They are the ones who are by the side of a child or youth whose world has been turned upside down and who can change a child’s story.”

CASA of Caroline was established in 2003 after over 300 cases of abuse or neglect were investigated by the Caroline County Department of Social Services. Approximately 50 children were in foster care at the end of that year. Each child who was removed from their parents’ home was involved in a lengthy court process. A group of concerned citizens, spearheaded by then Circuit Court Judge J. Owen Wise, recognized the need for someone to watch out for the best interest of foster care children. Judge Wise had seen firsthand the positive results of CASA advocacy which began in Seattle, Washington.

A Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer is a trained and committed adult who is appointed by a judge to represent and advocate for a child’s best interest. By becoming a CASA volunteer, citizens can help keep abused and neglected children safe and give them a chance at finding true happiness in a safe, loving, and permanent home. For many of the children, CASA volunteers are the one constant in an otherwise chaotic life.

Jack Kirk has been a CASA of Caroline volunteer for nearly 12 years. Volunteers were given yard signs to show appreciation for their service since the traditional volunteer appreciation party could not be held due to the pandemic.

In addition to caring about the well-being of children, CASA volunteers must be at least 21 years of age; pass a background screening; complete 30 hours of pre-service training; continue with 12 hours of annual in-service training; be able to commit to a child until their case has closed, or for at least one year; and be able to volunteer a minimum of four to six hours per month.

Three new CASA of Caroline volunteers were sworn in at the Caroline County Courthouse, including Rich Warfield, Julie Quick and Ann Anthony.

According to Amy, “CASA volunteers get to know the child – they listen; they talk to people in the child’s life to determine what is needed for the child to heal and thrive.”

To do this, CASA volunteers gather information from teachers, social workers, doctors, relatives; everyone involved in the child’s daily life. They ensure the child is safe and up-to-date with mental and physical health check-ups and work with experts and service providers to identify and recommend services at keeping families intact or returning children safely to families. They also create supportive environments for families from all walks of life and make legal reports and recommendations in the child’s best interests to judges and magistrates.

Amy adds, “CASA of Caroline volunteers make a tremendous difference in the lives of children in our community. As we all strive for better health in 2021, perhaps the greatest way to improve our own health is by volunteering to help those in need.”

To learn more about CASA of Caroline or to apply to become a volunteer advocate for four to six hours/month, visit www.carolinecasa.org or call Shelly Kulp at 410-479-8301.

 Volunteering Improves Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health

Last year taught us many lessons, and one of them is definitely how important it is to stay healthy. Mind, body, soul, and spirit – getting and staying healthy means everything. The beginning of a new year is a time to reflect on the previous one and resolve to be healthier. Many of us make New Year’s Resolutions for physical self-improvement like smoking cessation, new workout routines, and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. But there is one thing you can do to improve your physical, mental, and spiritual health all at the same time. Volunteer.

Volunteers make an immeasurable difference in the lives of others. But did you know that volunteering can benefit your own health as well? It is a two-way street that can benefit you and your family as much as the cause you choose to help. From lowering stress to boosting self-confidence, research has shown that volunteering offers many health benefits.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, a division of the U.S. Government, studies show there is a significant relationship between volunteering and good health. We all know maintaining good health is vital to aging well. By volunteering, you are not only helping your community, but you are also increasing your chances for better overall health and longevity.

The Mayo Clinic identifies six ways volunteering contributes to better long-term health:

  1. It decreases depression by increasing social interaction and creating a support system with people who share common interests. Whether you’re filling backpacks for students in need, grooming horses for therapeutic riding, or driving seniors to their doctor appointments, you will interact with humanitarian folks who care and share in the same manner as you. Working closely with others for a common cause connects you to your community and can lead to lifelong friendships.
  2. It teaches valuable skills and allows you to explore new ones. What brings you joy? What are your passions? What are your strengths? What breaks your heart? Your answers to these questions will guide you in your exploration of volunteer opportunities that are right for YOU. Do you spend most of your day in front of a computer and long to be outdoors? Look for opportunities like cleaning up a local park or walking dogs for an animal shelter. Do you spend your days looking after your own or other people’s children? Perhaps you would enjoy calling Bingo at an assisted living facility. Have you always been interested in our legal system? Consider enrolling in a training class to become a volunteer advocate or mediator. Are you recently retired from a career in landscaping or horticulture? Consider teaching others to combat food insecurity by growing their own fruits and vegetables. The possibilities are exciting and limitless!
  3. It helps people remain mentally and physically active. These days it’s easy to be distracted by the television or social media but a volunteer commitment gets you up out of your chair, moving your body, and using your brain. Volunteer activities like loading boxes of food into peoples’ cars at a food distribution center can add hundreds of steps to your daily fitness tracker! And, just like every other muscle in your body, your brain requires regular use to maintain sharp mental function and ward off cognitive decline later in life.
  4. It may reduce stress levels by enhancing social networks and providing the opportunity to savor time spent in service to others. Whether you’re working with adults, children, or animals, a meaningful connection can take your mind off your own worries. Consider filming an instructional video to share your cooking or painting talents with people with disabilities. The knowledge that you’re helping someone in need by sharing your personal time and talents results in higher self-esteem, improved mood, and less stress.
  5. Volunteering may also contribute to a longer life. The Longitudinal Study of Aging found that people who volunteer and make a meaningful contribution to their community have lower mortality rates than those who don’t.
  6. Volunteering is a great way to meet other people and make new friends. It can be especially beneficial for those who are naturally shy or introverted by providing them an ice-breaker to meet like-minded folks.

Whatever your volunteer pursuit is, it can be an energizing escape from your daily routine or provide a new one if your previous routine has become stagnant. Volunteering is one of the easiest ways to enhance your own health and experience true humanitarian fulfillment in life. Consider volunteering as a family, too. Children watch everything you do. By giving back to the community and bringing your kids along to serve at a soup kitchen or clean up a park, you will establish healthy habits and show them first-hand how they can make a difference.

Provided by Amy Horne, Director of Outreach and Partnerships, CASA of Caroline, Inc.

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