Susan Knight said goodbye to CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) this week, after 12 years as the director of the organization and she was honored for her efforts to continue moving the organization forward. And at the same time, the new director, Richelle Bryant, took over in her spot, as the agency prepared to move to a new location.
CASA is a private nonprofit agency that provides advocates for children who have been placed in foster care and focuses on the case from the child’s perspective.
Knight grew up in Roseburg, and moved back to the area with her husband in 2005. They were going to stay only a couple of years. That’s when Bonnie Ford, the wife of Kenneth Ford, owner of Roseburg Forest Products, contacted her.
“Bonnie said, would you like to be on the CASA board, and I said yes,” said Knight.
A short time later they were in need of an executive director, and asked her take the job. Knight knew fundraising was going to be a key part of the job, and she had a strong business background, having worked as a vice-president of customer service with Eddie Bauer’s clothing company in Seattle. So she decided to give it a try.
“I liked the idea of making it a successful agency, and then you just get drawn into the need because of all the children in foster care. When you begin to realize these children just really need help, then you’re really drawn into it.
Knight turned over the CASA reins to Bryant, a Myrtle Creek woman who attended South Umpqua High School and just returned last year from a job overseas working with the U.S. military.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to come into such a well run and organized agency that has built such credibility in the community for doing such amazing work,” said Bryant.
Knight said the biggest challenge is always fundraising and recruiting more volunteers to help handle the ever-increasing number of kids in foster care.
“The CASA program needs to grow, and that takes additional capacity, which takes additional funding, to make sure all these children have a CASA advocate,” Knight said.
Building community awareness about CASA, she said, is a big key to getting the funding.
“The people that know CASA and what it’s all about are believers, but it’s a little bit of a mystery to a lot of people, and we feel like Richelle is going to be really good out in the community,” said Knight.
“There is great need and there is great competition for those finite dollars that are available, so it’s being able to partner with local organizations, and maximize our efforts,” said Bryant.
Valerie Trout, the CASA board chair, said she was excited to hear about Bryant.
“I thought she was the right person for this job,” said Trout.
CASA is in need of many more volunteers. Since Jan. 1 the advocates have served 240 children, but in Douglas County, there are almost 500 kids in foster care and the number continues to rise. They just don’t have enough volunteers to handle all of them.
Trout said not everyone is cut out to be a CASA volunteer because it can be frustrating at times. She said no matter what you do, it’s going to be an emotional thing.
“But if you really have a place in your heart for children, it’s the best thing you could do,” said Trout.
“It’s one of, if not the most rewarding thing you could ever do in terms of a volunteer role, because you really get to see the impact you have on a child’s life,” said Knight.
The need continues to grow but many don’t know what CASA does.
“We need to reach out so they know we’re here and that this is the place where they can use their talents, that’s what we really need to focus on,” said Trout.
Nikki Amos began as a CASA advocate when the Roseburg office opened in 1993. She had a load of 30 cases at one time. She has cut down on the number she takes on, but still gets a lot of satisfaction in helping the young people through trying times.
“You can feel really good with some of the things that happen, but you can feel horrible if things go bad,” said Amos.
Prudy Zorotovich has been driving in from Elkton for more than 10 years to represent the kids.
“Sometimes there’s pressure to take more cases, but one of the reasons we need CASA so badly is the caseload that DHS (Dept. of Human Services) has. If we had double the number of CASAs we have right now we could just about serve all children who are coming in,” said Zorotovich.
CASA offices will be moving to the former Cancer Center building on Umpqua Street next to the old Douglas Community Hospital at the end of the month.
CASA volunteers are preparing for their big fundraiser set for Saturday June 24 at the Roseburg Country Club.
For information about being a CASA advocate, call CASA at 541-672-7001.