On Friday morning, a teary-eyed Gary Dolphin shared the story of two foster children who had been victims of neglect.
One was assigned to a court-appointed special advocate — someone who worked to get her into a better foster home, who served as a role model, who encouraged her and stressed the importance of school and of choosing the right type of friends. Years later, that child graduated from college with a nursing degree.
The other child never had that type of special advocate, known as a CASA, and committed suicide at the age of 15, said Dolphin, a Dubuque County resident who serves as an Iowa Hawkeyes football and men’s basketball announcer.
“For just a couple hours a week of their spare time, they can play an incredible role in shaping a child’s future,” Dolphin said of advocates. “They are the voice of the voiceless.”
Dolphin delivered his comments during the Light of Hope breakfast at Grand River Center in Dubuque.
About 90 people attended the event that sought to encourage people to volunteer as court-appointed special advocates for foster children. It was hosted by Friends of Iowa CASA and Iowa Citizen Foster Care Review Boards.
Executive Director Tim Pearson said a CASA volunteer spends a few hours each week checking in on a child in foster care. The volunteer gives the child the opportunity to talk about their experiences with their foster parents and safely report any possible abuse. The special advocate also acts as a role model, encouraging the child in their school efforts and making them feel valued.
“Many foster kids tend to end up in worse situations,” Pearson said. “Ideally, we can make a safeguard for that. This ensures they are in a good, loving environment.”
While CASAs have proven greatly beneficial for foster children, Pearson said, the challenge lies in finding people willing to take on the role.
Of the 130 children in Clayton, Delaware, Dubuque and Jackson counties in foster care, only 15 have a CASA “who ensure these children have a role in the decisions that affect their lives,” according to the Friends of Iowa CASA.
Actor Gary Kroeger, probably best known for his time as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” from 1982 to 1985, served as master of ceremonies for the breakfast. Throughout the event, he urged attendees to consider contributing their time to helping foster children.
“Everyone is busy, but for a couple hours a week, you can change a life,” he said. “I’d say that a pretty good deal.”
CASA volunteers also spoke about their experiences.
Isa O’Hara talked about serving in the role and the satisfaction she feels helping children in need.
“This by far is the most rewarding thing I have ever done,” she said. “I donate a couple of hours a week to help a child in life. Somewhere out there, a child waits for you.”
Heather LuGrain, Teresa Shelter program director for Opening Doors, attended the event and shared the event organizers’ enthusiasm for the need of CASA volunteers.
“I thought it was great,” LuGrain said. “It’s extremely important having someone dedicated to that child’s well-being.”
Pearson said children in foster care have a much higher chance of ending up in poverty or in jail.
With a CASA volunteer, those children are given a better chance of coming out of foster care with a brighter future.
“There are lots of abused and neglected kids that feel alone,” Dolphin said. “We can all make a difference.”