By Mishele Wright firstname.lastname@example.org
The leader of the Grant County Court Appointed Special Advocate program is receiving state recognition on Friday.
Leslie Hendricks, executive director of the local organization, will receive the CASA Program Director of the Year Award during the 18th annual Indiana CASA conference this weekend.
The conference is a chance for volunteers to receive training on how to better advocate for abused and neglected children.
The Supreme Court during the program will recognize Hendricks, who was nominated by her board members and by Grant Superior Court 2 Judge Dana Kenworthy, whose court handles all of the Child In Need of Services cases.
CASA Board President Darrell Smith said the board decided to nominate Hendricks because of her accomplishments this past year.
“We relocated this year, which was a huge change, and she was very much a part of helping another CASA in another county,” he said. “She’s just done a marvelous job.”
According to a news release from the Supreme Court, Hendricks also has increased the number of volunteers and children served, and she started the annual sand sculpting contest to raise money for the organization.
Hendricks said one of her biggest accomplishments as the director of the program has been to raise awareness in the community about what CASA is and what the advocates do.
There are currently 169 kids who have a CASA in Grant County, and another 75 children are on a waiting list.
The number of kids served has remained about the same. Volunteers always see an increase in September when school resumes because more people are aware of children being abused and neglected.
“We haven’t had that large of a waiting list for a number of months, but we’ve always had a waiting list in the five years I’ve been here because there aren’t enough volunteers,” she said.
According to state law, every child involved in a CHINS case must have an advocate in the court system.
“When we first began, our numbers were 50 kids and 115 on the waiting list,” she said.
Volunteers also have increased — from about 20 five years ago to 40 to 50. Grant County currently has 46 volunteers, most of whom are working multiple cases.
“We’ve had 40 to 50 consistently in the (last) five years,” she said. “We’ve maintained that level, and we’re really proud of that. We could always use more, though. I’d like to have 60 and stay at that consistently.”
The program has grown because of community awareness. When she first took the position, she said CASA wasn’t as credible and visible as it needed to be. Since then, there has been a constant push to raise awareness and money for the organization, she said.
With her degree in elementary education, Hendricks worked for Marion Community Schools for eight years before stopping to have her own children. When she entered the workforce again, she said she didn’t want to go back into teaching. She applied and got the position at CASA in May 2009 because she said she’s always had a heart for children.
“I want to do anything I can that furthers my community,” she said. “I was born and raised in Marion, so I have very deep roots here, and I’ve always enjoyed things that better my community.”
She admits she knew little about the CASA organization at the time, though.
“At the time I took the position I hadn’t even seen the inside of a courtroom,” she said. “It wasn’t something I had experience with, so I was blazing a new trail.”
But she said the position was what God led her to, despite not having the experience or background.
“It’s been a huge learning experience for me,” she said. “There were parts of the job I had never experienced before, and I still feel that after five years. There are weekly things that I’m still learning and experiencing. I’m always growing and changing. I think for me that has always been something I’ve enjoyed. I’m a lifelong learner.”
Though she said her board, director of volunteers and the volunteers themselves are heavily involved, she said she enjoys knowing she’s making a fundamental change in the lives of children by directing the program.
The job is both rewarding yet challenging.
“The most heart-wrenching thing is to realize that we will never work ourselves out of the job and that this issue is part of our culture,” she said.
The business is a never-ending battle, but that’s not something she can dwell on, she said.
Another frustrating part of the job is knowing the children must be served, though the state doesn’t cover salaries to keep the program running.
She’s proud of the fact she’s been able to come up with creative ways to raise money. Not only has she been able to attract new donors, but she’s maintained the financial supporters the group has.
The first sand sculpting fundraiser brought in $5,662, but the event has grown every year. This year’s event raised $17,000, and the total over the five years has been $80,000.
She said she’s also been able to get more grant money each year, which she attributes to the program’s consistent growth.
CASA’s annual budget is about $125,000. In 2013, 69 percent of that funding came from grants, 15 percent from community service organizations or foundations, 12 percent from fundraisers and 4 percent from other donations.
In addition to running Grant County’s program, Hendricks also assisted Wabash County’s CASA for a period in 2013. The program was under another independent nonprofit that closed, which resulted in the CASA program there in danger of closing as well because it didn’t have access to its federal funding.
State officials asked Hendricks to work with the CASA in Wabash so the funds could filter through to the program.
“It was kind of an all or nothing thing,” Hendricks said. “Certainly I was going to do whatever I could to help them, so in 2013 for a period of months Wabash County was part of us at the federal level only. I was just a liaison between their program and the federal fundraisers so they could keep their money.”
During that time she was in contact with the director there, who was fairly new. The program is now independent and doesn’t seek assistance from Grant County, though Hendricks is still in touch with the director there.
Hendricks jumped another hurdle this year when CASA was asked to move out of its current location that it shared with First Light Child Advocacy Center. The move was unexpected, but Hendricks said she and her team made sure the June 1 deadline was met.
In the future Hendricks said her plans include trying to secure more funding, especially for the two salaried positions, and to get the waiting list down.
Though the CASA program is volunteer-based, she is looking at getting a paid person to help with cases so there aren’t as many kids waiting on an advocate.
Hendricks said she didn’t know she had been nominated for the state award, so she was surprised when she got the call from the state. She had nominated one of her volunteers for the Volunteer of the Year Award, so she thought officials were calling her about that.
The Indiana Supreme Court’s Division of State Court Administration oversees the state CASA program and is hosting the conference in Indianapolis. Almost 600 volunteers and staff are registered to attend, according to the news release.