A collaboration between area attorneys and CASA of the Eastern Panhandle (CASA-EP) has provided Christmas gifts for hundreds of abused and neglected children since the program began 10 years ago.
“When this started 10 years ago, we basically called it the Christmas Campaign for CASA Kids, and it was begun by the Eastern Panhandle Bar Association,” Kathy M. Santa Barbara said.
Santa Barbara, whose practice is in Martinsburg, has been a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) board member since it was formed in 2003.
“Later, the Eastern Panhandle Bar Association formed the Eastern Panhandle Bar Charitable Foundation and, in 2014, it took over the raising of money,” she said. “We are the only local bar that has its own charitable foundation.”
She praised her legal assistant, Crystal Marsh, for having been important from the beginning when she helped with everything from shopping to wrapping gifts.
Marsh, who still helps coordinate the event, is vital to its success, Santa Barbara said.
A decade later, many others also help share these holiday responsibilities, she said.
“We coordinate with CASA staff to determine which children who are in the abuse and neglect system would not have any Christmas, or have very little, if it weren’t for our program,” she said.
CASA volunteer advocates check with children to make a list of both their wants and needs, Santa Barbara said.
“The CASA gift drive is incredible,” CASA advocate Anne Taylor said. “It’s a huge help to the large families, and the bar association always puts so much genuine thought into it.”
Children range in age from infants up to 17 years old, and $150 is spent per child for gifts, she said.
“When this began in 2010, we served about 18 children. But because of the opioid epidemic, the number of children we serve has increased dramatically over the years,” she said.
“This year, our shoppers bought for 64 children, and over the 10 years, we have purchased for approximately 450 kids. Over the past decade. we have spent approximately $72,000 on these gifts.”
Delbert “Del” Pope, director of training and staff development for CASA, praised the attorneys for being “fully engaged” and sincerely interested in bringing holiday joy to the youngsters.
“They joyfully bring the gifts and, with great detail, seek to meet each child’s greatest needs, as well as fulfill their Christmas wishes,” he said.
“I am also thoroughly convinced that this program relieves many families of the stress that can come from the financial responsibilities of this season.”
Chris Stroech, an attorney with Arnold & Bailey, has been shopping for the past three years, but this year, he shopped for five young children from the same family.
“I don’t have any kids, so this gives me the chance to do the kind of Christmas shopping I otherwise wouldn’t get to do. And I get to see the new popular toys in the process,” he said.
Joe Ferretti, an attorney in Martinsburg who has been shopping for seven years, said it has become a treasured family tradition.
“Now that theyâ€™re away â€” my youngest is in grad school â€” two of my children came back for the weekend we were going shopping for the CASA kids because they still wanted to be part of that,” he said.
While Christmas shopping is fun, it also is a sobering reminder of what area children endure the rest of the year, Ferretti said.
“The things the kids want are almost always the latest, greatest toys. But when you look at their real needs, it’s hard not to get a little emotional because you see how deprived some of these children are, and the difficult situations they must be in,” he said.
More CASA volunteers are needed because of the growing number of vulnerable children in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties who need advocacy assistance, Executive Director Michelle Sudduth said.
“In order to serve the more than 600 children in our counties’ child-welfare system today, we need more volunteers,” she said.
“Currently, our organization is thrilled to have the participation of 60 volunteer advocates who have made a difference in the lives of 193 children who have experienced abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, this accounts for only 31% of the children currently before the courts who could benefit from an advocate.”
CASA advocates are appointed by judges to watch over and make sure children don’t get lost in the legal and social-service system or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes, Sudduth said.
Volunteers stay with each case until it is closed, and the child is placed in a safe permanent home, she said.
“For many abused children, their CASA volunteer might be the most constant, loving adult presence in their lives,” she said.
An open house will be Tuesday, Jan. 28, from 3 to 6 p.m. at the CASA-EP offices at 336 S. Queen St. in Martinsburg.
CASA-EP staff members and current advocates will be there to welcome those interested in volunteering or learning more about the program. Community partners are encouraged to come meet the staff and discuss how organizations can help children who have experienced abuse or neglect in the region.