“Imagine a 4-year-old boy whose mother has left him. He has no home, no comfort, nothing to call his own. Then, he is thrust into the court system where he waits for strangers to determine his fate. And then imagine someone in the system describing this boy as ‘hopeless.' Just think of that - 4 years old and a dark future …” - a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate.

For the child mentioned above, a CASA volunteer was appointed as his advocate. The woman, like many volunteers, hold dearly the belief that there are no hopeless children, only children who have yet to experience hope.

There is a big need for more volunteers, according to the 13th Judicial District CASA Executive Director Crystal Huff, and a recent donation by the Peoria Tribe is going to put approximately five more trained workers into the volunteer pool.

The donation came with a promise for additional funding that will increase the volunteer base.

The donation left Huff at a loss of words to express the appreciation.

Court Appointed Special Advocates are trained volunteers who serve as the eyes and ears of the court and the voice for abused and neglected children. They provide information the judge needs in order to make a decision that is in the child's best interest. More importantly, they make sure that the needs of the child are met, according to Huff.

In the case of the afore mentioned 4-year-old, the CASA volunteer stuck with him throughout the court proceedings. As a result, the child found a safe home with nurturing parents who will soon adopt him. “This is a story of a child's life literally being saved,” Huff said. “It is is only one example of how CASA volunteers are giving thousands of abused and neglected children a second chance.”

The Peoria Tribe recently donated $5,000 to CASA and has named the organization the recipient of an additional $5,000 which will come from the proceeds of the upcoming NGA Hooters tournament at Buffalo Run in June.

“The tribes involvement in any child welfare program provides a positive impact on society,” said Peoria Chief John Froman. “And we are all too aware and appreciative of the number of Native American children CASA has helped.”

In 1976, more than 500,000 children in the U.S. were in foster care, often unable to be reunited with their families or adopted. The courts were not always able to ascertain just what placement would be best for the child's long-term welfare. Judge David Soukup of Seattle, Wash., began to look for ways to make sure the child's best interests could be consistently presented to the court.

Soukup's concept became an active program on Jan. 1, 1977. Since that time, CASA has expanded to every state in the nation as well as the Virgin Islands. There are now over 72,000 volunteer and more than 950 CASA programs.

In 1998, Judge Barry Denny and Alicia Littlefield desired that a CASA program be established for the 13th Judicial District. The program came into existence through a grant written by the Community Crisis Center, Inc.

Recently, through the efforts of many, the local program became a fully incorporated organization with offices in both Ottawa and Delaware counties.

There are approximately 30 volunteers working under the leadership of Huff, Ottawa County Coordinator Melinda Stotts, and Delaware County Coordinator Kathy Bohannan. Approximately 30 precent of the children who need representation in the local district have a CASA volunteer assigned to their case. Delaware and Ottawa Counties CASA has served over 450 abused, neglected, and deprived children.

“Our goal as the 13th Judicial District CASA is to educate our community to the large number of abused children in our area to help protect and nurture each child so that no child walks alone,” Huff said. “It takes all of us, everyday people, to stand up and commit to making a meaningful difference in the lives of abused and neglected children. With the generous gift from the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma the 13th Judicial District CASA, Inc. is just one step closer to being able to speak up for more abused and neglected child in Ottawa and Delaware counties. It is heart warming to see people caring about there community and making an effort to ensure its future. I say its future because that is what all children are - the future.”

April was National Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month. Some might say this it was an odd idea, selecting the first full month of spring to represent something as tragic as child abuse and neglect. But CASA workers say it was the perfect choice as it is a time of new beginnings.

“The program's biggest need is community involvement,” Huff said. “People willing to give of their time to be the voice of a child in court.”

To learn more about the CASA program, volunteer or sponsor an advocate, contact Crystal Huff in Miami 918-540-0700; in Grove 918-787-6481.