BY JENNIFER O’CONNOR
I am not a native of Virginia Beach. In fact, I am not even a native of Virginia.
My journey as a volunteer started when I was a high school student in Massachusetts. Now I volunteer here as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, to help empower children involved in the courts system. We help abused and neglected children.
In the December edition of The Independent News, Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission Chairperson Raj Islam wrote this: “We connect, we listen, and we act.”
Those words printed back in December are exactly the same words and thoughts I have in regards to advocating for the rights of all.
However, the most vulnerable are the children. Our youth do not have a voice – particularly those who have found themselves deeply and sadly entrenched in the foster care system.
I have the unique task of becoming the voice of a child when in front of a judge in the Virginia Beach Juvenile & Domestic Relations court.
It is my honor and privilege to be allowed into the lives and into the homes of those who have found themselves under the “spotlight” of the Virginia Beach Human Services Department and sometimes even the criminal courts.
It can be sad and very difficult to process their stories in our minds, but process we must. Both the children and their families deserve the opportunity to be heard and to commit to change. They deserve to be given that chance to make the most of their lives.
My inspiration and desire to help others started in high school when volunteer hours were mandated for matriculation. I volunteered at a shelter for women in Central Massachusetts. Since then, as a military spouse, I have volunteered all over the country, including churches and schools.
As my own children grew and became more independent, I found myself being drawn to help more and more in my own community. As a former VBCPS employee, it became painfully clear to me that there was a need for more CASA volunteers. This is because more children were finding themselves in situations in which their voices needed to be heard, particularly in a courtroom, where life-altering decisions regarding their future were being made.
As the population continues to grow, so does the number of cases assigned to our social workers or guardians ad litem. A CASA volunteer, however, has only one family, only one child or set of siblings at a time.
We are given the rare opportunity to be granted full access in order to gather all the information we can and report our findings to the judge.
We are objective and unbiased. The judgments are to be left to the judge.
As Mr. Islam wrote in December: “We connect, we listen, and we act.”
It is this commitment I make to a family that ties me to this community.
I am not from here, but I am a human being. I strive to make a positive difference wherever I live. I am part of a military family, but this is home.
I feel strongly that it is incumbent upon all who have the ability to aid in our communities to do so.
Leave your stereotypes and prejudices behind and educate yourself how you too can strive to leave your community a better place.
© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC