Volunteer Spotlight Archive - 2017

October 2017

Meet Arlene Dodge
of Fanwood
'Every child should have that person they call
in large and small moments.'

After teaching nearly 40 years, one might think retirement would be kid-free — other than grandchildren, of course. Not so for Fanwood’s Arlene Dodge, who needed to feel she was still contributing in a meaningful way. After her husband brought home CASA materials from a street fair Arlene was hooked.

“I'm not the type of person who leads marches or rallies, but I can help in a concrete, one-on-one way. My dad died when I was seven, and my mom raised five of us on her own. I never could have made it without knowing she would always be there to encourage me. She was the first person I'd call with good news or bad. Every child should have that person they call in large and small moments,” she explains. 

Arlene is that for her two sons, 23 and 35, and grandchild. “My younger son shared that without my husband and I to help him sort out problems and be there when he needs to vent, he doesn't know how he could have handled things.” She’s “a lucky grandma to a beautiful three-year-old. Every child on the planet deserves to be showered with the love she is.”

Arlene’s also become a rock for her CASA youth, whom she met during high school and navigated driving tests to college applications and beyond. At first, the pair had a set meeting time each week. Now, though, her youth lives at college and their routine involves a more relaxed schedule. “Because she's a teenager, texting and late hours on the phone are a big part of our journey together,” she says.

Although away at college, it’s driveable and Arlene makes the trip. In fact, she promised as much the day the teen was packed to leave. “It’s important to me to keep that promise,” she says, adding she will also be at college graduation, tissues in hand and tears flowing.

Arlene never expected her CASA relationship to be so much fun. “Spending a day meeting at the beach or sharing a meal out with an interesting person goes far beyond my expectations. We discovered music we both love and I'm trying to make her into a Yankees fan. That’s not successful so far!”

Among Arlene’s interests is reading, and she always has a book in hand. She loves mysteries and legal thrillers, but dabbles in literary picks “for balance,” recommendations from her CASA youth, and nonfiction from CASA’s book club. Her favorite source of inspiration, though, is Robert Frost, especially the quote, "We may choose something like a star to stay our minds on, and be staid."

When tempted to complain, Arlene circles back to her mom, widowed and raising five children. “I never knew how much she struggled, how much she did for us by saying she trusted us to make the right decisions. I hope I can make my CASA youth believe those same words.”
September 2017

Meet Cheryl Kelesoglu of Westfield

'I worry for their future, but that’s motivation
to not let anything slip through cracks!'

Cheryl Kelesoglu has been working with her four CASA youth for just six months, yet she already has difficulty choosing just one gratifying experience: “It’s hard to say. I am very happy I was able to find a teacher to volunteer tutor one of my CASA children over the summer, and then I advocated in court for transportation to the tutor. But I’m not sure if that was more gratifying than the first time the younger boys bounced up and down, waving with big smiles when they saw me. Or, when one of the older boys trusted me enough to confide on a very impactful subject regarding his future. Every time I see any of them, it’s something new!”

Although Cheryl’s background as a coach, teacher and school counselor made volunteering as a child advocate an obvious choice, her background goes beyond that. Cheryl also ran a company that taught technology to preschoolers and kindergarteners and has volunteered extensively, including helping start a non-profit to provide sports programs to inner-city middle-schoolers, and serving as director of philanthropy for the Hoboken Family Alliance and president of the local parent-teacher organization. Right now, though, Cheryl’s busy at home with her son, 14, and daughter, 12, both of whom are avid soccer players. In fact, this summer, soccer brought them to Indiana twice as well as Switzerland and Italy.

Like her own kids, Cheryl played sports growing up. Sharing with CASA her very competitive spirit, Cheryl said, “I always felt embarrassed for getting so angry when we were losing. But I had a basketball coach who made sure I knew my competitiveness was a positive. He turned around my thinking. … What I viewed as weakness was suddenly strength. This coach’s support was a boost to my self-confidence I really needed.” Knowing the impact of a caring adult keeps Cheryl plugging along.

Cheryl’s biggest challenge so far? Day One. She worried she wouldn’t grasp all the complex details so she could effectively advocate for each. But after creating a map of each child’s support system and applying the reporting sections of the CASA court report, Cheryl determined exactly who to talk with to cover the important areas like education, health and social needs. She noted, “Breaking it down into simple steps really got me started. As I got to know each child and people in their support system, the questions to ask and needs of each child became clear. During training, we were asked to find positives in a picture that depicted a household that was not ideal. It helped me look at their placements through a positive lens and was pleasantly surprised to find all the children in safe homes and, at minimum, well cared for. I worry for their future, but that’s motivation to not let anything slip through cracks!”

Cheryl keeps herself on track thanks to her former mentor while a crisis intervention counselor in a public school. Her mentor reminded her they are “the voice of normalcy,” noting the youth’s home lives may not be normal but they could model ‘normal’ reactions and know the children can take that knowledge with them into the future.

Sounds spot-on to us, Cheryl.

August 2017

Meet CASA Jane Yarnell of Westfield

When I feel like all the odds are against us,
I see his face and immediately refocus.'

For Jane Yarnell, being an advocate is not only a source of joy in her life, but a true sense of purpose and ability to make change.

The Staten Island native raised her family in Westfield and is now a grandmother to six wonderful children. She loves to cook, and that’s a good thing — as she and her husband consider themselves foodies.

Jane believes that as a CASA volunteer, patience is key. She has been on the same case for 1,001 days, having met her CASA youth when he was just 5 years old. Soon, that little boy will celebrate his 9th birthday.

She notes, “My decision to become involved in a program such as CASA came from the joy of seeing the difference one person can make in a child’s life with just your unconditional love, your time and your steadfast desire to make a difference. I see helping children, despite their circumstances, as a pathway to a better and brighter future.”

The role of a CASA volunteer can take its toll, but Jane never loses sight of her mission and purpose, which is a better life for her CASA child: “His sweet smile and captivating personality are always there, and when I feel like all the odds are against us, I see his face and immediately refocus my goal as his advocate: making a difference in his life.”

Jane considers CASA volunteers to be “difference makers,” helping children set higher goals, restoring lost trust, providing a voice and finding a way even when the path seems unattainable and the challenge insurmountable.

She explains, “For most of these children, their first experience with life and the adults in their lives has been disappointment and insecurity. The CASA program gives us the unprecedented ability to step in wherever there is a need as we attempt to give our children all they need to have the life they deserve. This is what drives me the most.”

When faced with adversity in her own life and the lives of others, Jane looks to the reassuring words of C.S. Lewis to keep her grounded: “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”
July 2017

Meet CASA Tracy Forsyth of Summit
'I am someone he can trust ... he is worth fighting for.'

Tracy Forsyth credits her mother’s strength and reliability, and her directive “to always try to leave a situation better than I found it,” with who she is today. 

A Summit mom of three young adults — two sons and a daughter, ages 17 to 21. An attorney who’s held litigation and corporate posts. Wife to her college sweetheart. 

Tracy describes her “amazing family” as motivation for taking on the CASA volunteer role. “There have always been so many layers of support that stood between me and failure. That’s what is missing with kids in the foster system: a loving and dependable support system. As a parent and a lawyer, I’ve always had a strong interest in improving the lives of people struggling, particularly children. … As parents, we advocate for our kids without giving it a second thought. I wanted to fill that void to the extent possible for a child who was lacking someone to fight for their interests.”

Although the teen Tracy advocates for is from Union County, he’s living in South Jersey. But she doesn’t let geography get in her way. Despite the distance, she notes, “I do my best to visit him regularly and write him letters in between visits. “Most of these kids have been failed repeatedly by the adults in their lives. Consistency,  patience,  perseverance  and  reliability are the only ways to build a solid relationship. They’ve heard many words and many promises, and most of the time they lead to disappointment. A CASA has to be the exception to that rule.” So letters between visits it is.

Her diligence is paying off: “It’s very rewarding to see him start to really believe I am in his corner, I am someone he can trust, and someone that will not let him down. That he is worth fighting for.”

Tracy’s no stranger to volunteerism, spending time each week for nine years at Newark’s St. John’s Soup Kitchen as well as serving on boards for Summit schools. Perhaps Tracy’s approach to life, and how she’s living it, can best be summed up by her favorite quote: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the single candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”
June 2017

Meet Craig Grosswald of Summit,
CASA Volunteer Since April 2016

Twice a month Craig meets up with his CASA youth, a teen, and all the while stays connected with parties on the youth’s court case. A full-time partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ New York City office, Craig is the picture of someone organized, analytical and committed — and those skills fuel his CASA work: “My goal for the child is two-fold; advocate for everything he is rightful to and spend quality time together to allow him a sense of normalcy,” he says.
Craig gets it. Advocating for foster children requires promoting best interests, yet part of that includes everyday normalcy when possible. Craig combats the ”I’m-different-than-others” mentality often felt by children in foster care by exposing his CASA youth to experiences and everyday moments. “We like to go to the park. We’ve gone swimming at the YMCA. We also meet for dinner. He loves the Olive Garden — says it makes him feel ‘classy.’ “

It is Craig's treasured relationship with his family that motivates him to ensure his CASA youth benefits from caring connections. Craig says his family brings him the most joy, and describes his daughter and son, both in college, as successful students. He not only credits wife Marcia with that, as the trained teacher handled their children's educational careers, from summer reading to checking homework and project planning, but acknowledges a newfound appreciation for the effort it takes.

The most gratifying part of Craig’s CASA volunteer experience? “I’ve had a couple. I initially found it very difficult to build trust and ensure my CASA youth felt comfortable enough to share himself with me. But, during a recent visit, we had a very difficult conversation and he started to share some very personal situations from his past. I realized at that moment that I had his full trust.”

As for any remaining free time, Craig enjoys playing tennis and golf, and working out. Oh, and then there’s that non-fiction reading habit on the human struggle.
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