MARTINSBURG — Thanks to a number of generous donations, CASA of the Eastern Panhandle will be able to distribute goodie bags to the children it serves this holiday season and beyond.

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) are volunteers appointed by the court to advocate for a child’s best interest while in the court system, many of whom have experienced abuse and neglect, as well as are in the foster care system.

The first donation was on Dec. 7 by the EPIC Soccer boys teams. They held a toy drive that evening on the Jefferson High turf to collect small items for CASA kids, according to Julia Yuhasz, outreach consultant for CASA of the Eastern Panhandle.

A second donation was also made on Dec. 7 by the Berk-Mar Garden Club. Yuhasz said the group collected arts and craft donations at its luncheon to support the local CASA kids, as well.

Thirdly, WV Read Aloud made an “incredible” book donation to CASA-EP, with a second donation coming in the spring.

“WV Read Aloud is making a book donation to CASA-EP this month, something of a pilot program, as we look to reach more children in the foster care system and help CASA volunteers connect more deeply,” Yuhasz said. “WV Read Aloud reached out to me earlier this fall to discuss a possible partnership, and this December is the first go at it.”

On Dec. 16, the group donated eight boxes of books for CASA volunteers to share with the children from ages 5 to 12. Yuhasz said this round of books will be able to be distributed before the holiday weekend, with the second round to be distributed at the end of the school year.

In all, the donations are expected to serve approximately 160 children.

“We’re especially excited about this, because sharing a book together is a wonderful way for kids to show their skills (where they might need help in school), passions (stories they love), have an outlet (perhaps escape from life as they know it), as well as establish a bond with their CASA (talking about a favorite book or author),” Yuhasz said.

Bob Fleenor, of WV Read Aloud, said this partnership is a perfect fit for getting more books in children’s hands.

“We are looking for ways to connect with the community to fulfill our mission of getting reading material in the hands and on the minds of the young people of West Virginia,” he said, adding WV Read Aloud, thus far, has distributed well more than 20,000 books.

It does not stop there. Fleenor said WV Read Aloud also wants to continue getting books into the children’s hands even after being in foster care.

“We want to continue our relationship with these children after they transition out of foster care and into their adoptive homes,” he said. “We have a program called Read Aloud Families, which promotes literacy within families. We sign up households of children, and we send books to them that they order. We also send out reading-based activity sheets for the adults and the children to complete.”

As the families complete their books, they get to order more over six rounds, Fleenor explained.

“We are getting the adults involved with children’s literacy, as well as getting books into the hands of the kids,” he said. “Particularly, the children CASA is involved with, these kids don’t have a lot — they have very few possession of their own. We have seen over the years that possessing something, especially something as personal as a book, which helps educate and serves as a means of escape for them, is a valuable thing.

“We love the expressions on children when we hand them a book over their own.”

In addition, these donations will allow CASA-EP to launch something it has wanted to for a long time — provide activity goodie bags for the children and youth served by CASA volunteers.

“The way this works is that the volunteer will get to ‘shop’ and bring some goodies to the child for the first time they meet — on their birthday or any other occasion,” Yuhasz said. “They can periodically come pick from games or books or toys and share them with their CASA kid at their monthly or bi-monthly visits.”

“We’re really excited about this, because we know that this small gesture can really help volunteers create a comfortable environment, while establish greater connections and feelings of safety. Especially with little ones, that small distraction of playing with PlayDoh or Legos can be a welcome distraction and make conversation easier, as do books.”

Yuhsaz said CASA-EP is grateful for these groups and many others who support the work of the organization.

“It’s been an incredibly generous and humbling giving season from our community, seeing so many groups supporting the work of CASA volunteers in this unique way,” she said. “All of them approached CASA-EP asking how they could help and wanting to connect with the mission.”

She continued by saying the volunteers of CASA become a constant in these children’s lives.

“Sometimes it’s just in the little things — reading a book or building Legos or playing with PlayDoh together — that an advocate can really get to know a child and share in their life,” she said. “These donations may be small items, but they are powerful tools for a CASA volunteer who wants to connect and spend time with a child that has experienced abuse and neglect. It can take months to prove to a child that you’re truly there for them and won’t leave them like so many others have.

“Books, toys and games help establish trust through play and help volunteers discover the unique talents and interests of each child. This bounty of resources could last CASA-EP a year or more, which is a powerful resource as we try to serve more children in our community.”

WV Read Aloud and WV CASA may extend this at the state level across other CASA programs, and Yuhasz said they are hoping the Eastern Panhandle chapter might be able to help develop that framework to do so.

“Both CASA and WV Read Aloud state organizations saw this as a natural fit for the missions of our respective groups. We’re hopeful that CASA-EP will be a beginning point for similar CASA/Read Aloud partnerships in the state,” Yuhasz said.