Story By Sue Burns Photos by Michael Alvarez Photography

 

I

magine you are 11 years old and have been removed from your parents’ home permanently because of abuse. You’re placed in a loving foster home that, although better than many options, is not the home you know. Your foster family wants to adopt you and, with the social worker, leads you to believe that your relatives do not want to take custody of you. You feel helpless and stuck … and then, one adult changes your life in immeasurable ways, offering opportunities that you never knew existed, from hiking and kayaking to speaking your truth in court to applying for college and beyond. 

Can one adult make such a profound impact on a child’s life? The answer is a resounding “yes!” The child in the true story above is Anthony O’Leary; the adult is a CASA volunteer named Daniel, whose dedication to advocating for Anthony through his court case resulted in a life that he couldn’t have dreamed of without Daniel’s support. As the keynote speaker at CASA of Tulare County’s 26th annual Once Upon a Dream Gala Dinner and Auction on Sept. 10, Anthony shared his moving story with more than 200 guests. 

CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children — was founded in Seattle in 1977. 

A grassroots effort of judges and community members concerned about the plight of area children in foster care led to formation of Tulare County’s branch in 1984. Volunteers train and commit to a year of service before they are appointed by a judge to advocate for their assigned child. They work with legal and child welfare representatives, educators and others to ensure that the child’s voice is heard and that judges have all the critical information needed to make decisions that impact them. 

 In changing the lives of foster children, CASA changes the community. Executive Director Alberto Ramos said the average graduation rate of high school students with a CASA advocate is 75 percent. Public spending is reduced because kids with CASA advocates spend less time in foster care; the average time of children with an advocate is 8 months, versus 14 months for the general population of children without. 

Ten employees staff the offices in Tulare and Porterville; six are direct advocate coordinators supporting more than 160 volunteers contributing an estimated 10,000 hours each year. In Tulare County, there are about 1,200 children in foster care at any given time, and CASA advocates for about 400. (It’s estimated that about 15,000 kids have been supported over the past 30 years.) Increased funding equals more children served, hence the importance of the annual fundraising event.

Held at the Visalia Convention Center, Once Upon a Dream was planned by the organization’s Fund Development Committee under the guidance of co-chairs Shurene Curti (past board president), Cathy Herbst and Carolina Evangelo. 

An expansive variety of unique silent and live auction items awaited guests as they entered the room: premium spirits, home decor, handcrafted charcuterie boards, jewelry and paintings, and sporting goods, and dining and travel experiences of all kinds. 

 Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux served as the emcee, welcoming guests and community officials in attendance and thanking everyone for their support. The evening’s menu was created and served by community philanthropic champion Chef David Vartanian and The Vintage Press staff. A trio of appetizers during the silent auction-cocktail hour whetted appetites for the steak dinner and decadent desserts that followed.

 Brian Albertoni, board president, who became involved because of his experience fostering a 13-month-old boy who is now his adopted son, said, “Every child deserves to be secure, healthy and safe,” and expressed his appreciation to volunteers and staff for the work they do.

O’Leary’s story of courage and hope captivated the audience, who cheered when he announced that he had been accepted to UCLA and awarded several local and national scholarships. He is currently a junior beginning a communications internship with the Los Angeles Chargers. 

He exemplifies CASA’s mission to give every child an opportunity to thrive. Crediting the turnaround in his life to his CASA volunteer, O’Leary encouraged everyone to get involved, saying, “Without him, I don’t know where I would be today…. He is a forever friend that I will cherish.”