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Red Cross Hometown Heroes: CASA of the Pikes Peak region is community award winner

March 10, 2015 Updated: March 10, 2015 at 6:30 pm
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Since CASA of the Pikes Peak Region started in 1989, the organization has helped more than 10,000 local children who have been abused or neglected.

CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates, relies on volunteers to be the voice in court for hundreds of children a year.

The organization is this year's Red Cross Hometown Heroes Community Hero Award winner.

CASA volunteers attend court hearings on behalf of children and visit the kids they're working with in their homes, schools, foster homes or wherever else they may need an advocate to make sure they're properly represented in the legal system.

Helping individual children benefits the whole community, organization spokeswoman Tracy Sellars said.

"They're that much more likely to be healthy, productive adults and be contributors in our society," she said.

In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, CASA had nearly 400 volunteers who donated roughly 29,000 hours of their time. They helped about 1,200 children in El Paso and Teller counties.

The work is rewarding for volunteers, too. Jesse Murillo said he has experienced a lot of what the kids he works with have gone through, and wanted to give back to the community.

"There's a lot of gratification in seeing a child who has been abused and neglected and is behind in their growth skills and things like that ... there is a lot of satisfaction in seeing them turn themselves around," said Murillo, in his second year of volunteering. "It's great when you see a kid completely turn around. It's just very heartwarming."

He recently started serving as a peer counselor, overseeing new volunteers' cases and helping them through the process.

Volunteers try to keep kids in tough spots from perpetuating the bad behavior they've seen from parents or guardians, he said.

"Hopefully we're fostering the leaders of tomorrow," Murillo said.

The organization is always in search of more volunteers so it can help more children. Advocates are matched to cases for compatibility with kids. But not every child can get an advocate because there aren't enough, Murillo said.

"Those children don't have anyone to communicate their feelings or their emotions to," he said. "The only thing they (the court) get is reports from doctors and therapists."

Aside from casework, CASA has several other programs that help parents and children. The Supervised Exchange and Parenting Time, or SEPT, program, for example, helps kids avoid seeing parental conflicts. During supervised parenting time, parents without custody can visit with their children under the supervision of a volunteer.

Supervised exchanges allow parents to pick up or drop off their kids for visitation using a volunteer as a mediator, so parents don't have to have any contact.

CASA's Milton Foster Children's Fund gives kids in foster care financial help to cover things that might otherwise be unaccessible to them. Kids can get help paying for music, dance or martial arts classes, field trips, braces, contact lenses or supplies for science or art projects. More than 100 kids got grants through the fund last year, and 350 teens were able to "shop" for donated clothes and accessories for free at The Hanger on Boulder Street, which is a Foster Fund project.

It's hard for most people to figure out when to step in during a potentially hostile situation. But if bystanders are comfortable approaching another adult to defuse a situation or ask if everything is OK, they should, Sellars said.

If it doesn't seem safe, or intervening would be uncomfortable, people can leave an anonymous tip on the child abuse hotline for Colorado, 1-844-CO4-KIDS, or 1-844-264-5437. Calling 911 is an option, too.

"That's a tough call for anybody, but it's always best to err on the side of caution," she said. "Offer some kind of support."

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Contact Kassondra Cloos: 636-0362

Twitter @Kassondra Cloos

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