WEST ORANGE, NJ — CASA for Children of Essex County held its third annual Homeward Bound Walk on Oct. 14 at the Clipper Pavilion at the South Mountain Recreation Complex in West Orange. The walk serves as a way to raise both awareness and funding for the county’s court-appointed special advocates program.
CASA for Children of Essex County’s mission is to promote the welfare of children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect or abandonment by providing a safety net of support, advocacy and mentorship. CASA uses trained volunteer advocates to speak up in court for the best interest of the child so that each child receives the services needed to get them on the path to a safe and permanent home. All proceeds from the Homeward Bound Walk support the efforts of CASA’s more than 200 advocate volunteers.
“We had more than 60 people attend this years’ walk, and on our Fundly fundraising website we surpassed our goal of $5,000, raising just over $5,600,” CASA development associate Claudia Royster said in a recent phone interview. “This was my first event since joining the organization as the development associate, so it was really good to see everyone come together to raise awareness for the kids we serve, and really get a chance to explain to people the mission of CASA.”
The Homeward Bound Walk is an opportunity for volunteers to bring out friends who may not be familiar with the organization, and it is also popular because the whole family, including the four-legged members, can join in the fun.
Current board member and advocate Debra Caplan joined the board four years ago after she was approached by another board member and shortly thereafter she completed training to become an advocate.
“I have done the walk for the past three years, and this is my first year as a co-chair helping to organize the event,” Caplan said in a recent phone interview. “It’s the one event that my whole family can take part in, even our dog, and it’s a very easy ask. You wake up, get exercise and raise awareness.”
Caplan said that the opportunity to be both a board member of the organization as well as an advocate has been a fulfilling experience.
“Being an advocate is extremely rewarding, because the littlest things that you do — and you don’t think are a big deal — are huge for the children you work with. Sometimes your love and affection is the only person they are getting that from until they are adopted or reunified,” she said. “It’s really incredible and being on the board allows me to help with raising the money for the supervisors to manage advocates and take care of the kids so it’s kind of full circle for me.
Caplan introduced fellow advocate Meredith Schwartz to the organization, knowing her friend was looking to get involved in the community.
“I had recently moved to the area from New York City and while I was waiting on my teaching certifications and settling into the area, I was introduced to CASA and I went through the training and got sworn-in April 2017,” Schwartz said in a recent interview. “It was a great way to work with kids and be involved in a volunteer role that I could maintain. The nice thing about being a former teacher is that in Essex County one of the biggest focal points for advocates is the education piece, and because of my professional background, I understand the language in the meetings and make sure that I am staying in the loop.
“It’s been a really nice experience to marry my former life as a teacher and this very important role as an advocate,” she continued. “This was my second year doing the walk, and it’s such a fun event; kids, dogs, music, and the opportunity to meet other advocates and the CASA staff who help us make all of this happen.”