When I began planning this article, my goal was to collect snapshots of several folks across Eastern Iowa who were volunteering their time to help their communities in some way. I wanted to give our readers glimpses of the good works being done off the clock. Many of you, I’m sure, can be counted among those who tithe their time in this way; the stories are potentially endless and should be told.
As I began the interview process, I realized that most of the stories I was collecting deserved more than 300 words. This one, the first of many I hope, especially touched my heart and seemed like a good place to begin.
A New Volunteer for CASA
Throughout his high school years, college, and beyond, Ethan Lake was a devoted advocate for animal rights, but it wasn’t until he relocated from Chicago to Ottumwa that he found an opportunity, and more importantly heard the call, clear-as-a-bell, to volunteer as an advocate for youth.
The sense of community he discovered in Ottumwa surprised him—something he hadn’t experienced before, and he was inspired to give back. “I began searching for some sort of volunteer service that really resonated with me, something I was really passionate about,” Ethan says. “So when a coworker began describing the CASA program to me, I knew that I’d found what I was looking for.”
CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteers amplify the voices of children deemed by the state of Iowa as “in need of assistance.” From college kids to CEOs, the CASA volunteers who are trained through the Iowa Child Advocacy Board—in this case, based in downtown Ottumwa but serving a broader community—are ordinary people who volunteer their time and talents to help make sure kids and teens “who’ve experienced abuse or neglect aren’t negatively affected by the state system intended to protect them,” as described on the ICAB website.
CASAs do this, most simply, by building a positive relationship with the child (up to age 18), and in most cases the family over a period of time, usually 12–18 months. The perspective and insights of the CASA volunteer ultimately become an invaluable resource for the court and the judge in establishing permanence for the child—whether that be with a relative, family friend, adoptive parents, or back with the biological parent(s), whenever it can be done safely.
Cara Galloway, the CASA program manager at Iowa Child Advocacy Board in Ottumwa, sat down with me, excited to share about the volunteer programs she helps to coordinate. “What Wapello County is doing is pretty phenomenal, and what we’ve done here with our CASA and Foster Care Review Board [FCRB] has now expanded to Fairfield also—we’re serving almost every family we can there.”
Galloway currently works with about 25 active advocates in the area. “While this number may seem small, it has grown substantially since I began three years ago. We still have many cases without advocates, so more are always needed.” To give you a bird’s-eye view, there are about 570 active CASA advocates in the state of Iowa.
A Challenge with Big Rewards
Unlike volunteers planting trees in the park or organizing a charity fundraiser, for example, the CASA program is more suited to those interested in a longer-term commitment, which is not often what you’d expect from a 30-year-old. At least not the ones I know.
“A big portion of the commitment is going through that training,” says Ethan, “and getting prepared to take your first case on.” The training is flexible, and ongoing, but does begins with an initial 30 hours.
“What’s great about CASA,” says Gallaway, who is all too aware of the shortcomings of the child welfare system, “is you bring these fresh eyes in who don’t have the background except for the training we give them, and they bring a new perspective.” Also, unlike a guardian ad litem, a court-appointed attorney whose time is often spread thin across several child welfare cases at once, the CASA volunteer only handles one case at a time.
The educational portion of Ethan’s training was a “real eye-opener” for him, and the skill- and confidence-building certainly “came in waves,” he reflects. After all, CASA volunteers are preparing to insert themselves into the lives of total strangers, even if only for short periods of time. It’s not always the case that the family trusts you or even wants you there—and that can be an intimidating process, especially for those like Ethan who don’t have a background in social work or child welfare—or even working with children. But I could tell from my brief conversation with Ethan that he was a natural at putting people at ease and leading with the heart, even if his beginnings were more timid.
“It’s been really fun to watch his growth,” adds Galloway. “The program at times can be hard, and it can be draining,” she says, “but the work is really rewarding.” And it often comes with unexpected gifts.
“One of the things I’ve been carrying with me recently,” Ethan shares, “is to lean into discomfort. Sometimes when you’re feeling those anxieties, or that uncomfortability, it’s not necessarily a negative thing. It can be a kind of indicator for growth or just experiencing something new.” He laughs, “I had to remind myself of that a couple times when I had that real strong internal dialogue, don’t do this, this isn’t our safe zone!”
Even in uncertain moments, Ethan was able to keep his eye on the prize. “One thing I learned through the training that really blew my mind was that it only takes one positive connection in a kiddo’s life—or really anybody’s life—to make a difference or to have a strong impact. Just learning that and getting to live that through the volunteer service is something that’s really rewarding for me. And it has really just helped me connect with people—even in my own personal relationships—in such a greater way. Even on the smallest level, you can be that one person to make the difference in even a stranger’s day, just by saying hello or being kind or cordial to somebody—because that might be the only conversation that person has that day.”
The Power of Connection
Ethan’s first CASA case is wrapping up soon and has gone longer than the typical 12–18 months to get resolved. “Actually, I really appreciate that, because I’ve really developed quite a bond with the kiddos on my case, and even the family,” he says.
“One of the moments that really warmed me was—it was probably my third or fourth time visiting the kiddos—we were at a local football game, and their foster mom introduced me to some friends of the family. Ever since she said, ‘This is Ethan, he’s just part of the family,’ it honestly made a difference in my life. It made it more comfortable and easier to have that commitment to the volunteer service role.
“I’m really excited to grow with the program and learn how I can deepen my role. It’s really an important program. Really boiled down, its about developing a connection with children in your community who are in need. In need of that connection. And in need of somebody to advocate for them.”
The day I met with Galloway, she explained, “This week has been great for CASA.” She was lit up by a lot of positive news she’d been getting from her CASA volunteers about their cases, including a message from Ethan.
“He texted me and said how amazing the kids were doing—and that the kids made a decision we didn’t think they were going to make—but they did! And it was such a positive decision! And it was because of these connections and these bonds these advocates and volunteers had.”
She continued, “In the lives of these children, it’s these little differences—things that we think are small—that are so big to them, they can change the outcome of their lives.
“It might not change the whole world, but we’re changing little pieces of our community, which then in turn, break the cycles of abuse, and break the cycles of poverty, and help kids and families be successful.”
If you’d like to learn more about the CASA program or find the nearest CASA training center, please visit ChildAdvocacy.iowa.gov. It’s a great, easy-to-use, and very thorough resource at our fingertips.
Thanks for reading, thanks for giving your time in the ways you do, and stay tuned for more stories of Iowa’s fabulous volunteers in future issues.