Aldo Benalcazar has a degree from UCLA, a masters in social work from USC, and has worked as a licensed clinical social worker for several years at the LA County Department of Mental Health. Yet he still had an “aha moment” when going through his training to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).
According to Aldo, one training session in particular stood out. ”We were each given a hypothetical budget of $200 and instructed to make it last for one week. After deducting money for essentials like groceries, rent and clothing, we were left with practically nothing.” Aldo added, “There are so many factors that go into why a youth is removed from their home but many of these families are under tremendous financial pressure. That exercise was really eye opening.”
Born in Ecuador, Aldo moved to the U.S. when he was only four years old. He attended an all-boys Catholic high school before moving on to college and post-graduate work. He began working with children and adolescents at the LA Department of Mental Health then, after six years, moved into a more administrative role working with social workers and the family preservation program to ensure children and their parents are properly linked to mental health services. “For children to thrive and succeed, we have to do what we can to ensure their parents are thriving and succeeding,” said Aldo.
A co-worker told him about CASA and suggested he’d be a good advocate. It took a few years for things to fall into place, but Aldo knew he really loved working with kids and their families. “I knew CASA was a great organization and a good fit with my work and interests. I liked being able to develop a closer mentor relationship with a child than the boundaries of my job allowed, like taking a youth to a job fair or getting a bite to eat at McDonalds.”
Aldo went through the extensive training provided by CASA before being sworn-in in February, 2017. “My training as a social worker helped prepare me for this role. It helped in building rapport with my youth, in labeling emotions and in knowing how to provide a safe space. But I remind myself that my role is not to be a therapist. My most important job is just being present for my kiddo.”
According to Aldo, the training experience was very comprehensive. “I really liked that the average person who doesn’t have professional experience dealing with foster youth would still have a sense of the hardships they often face. Advocates are given a snapshot of what youth often go through in the foster care system.”
Following his training and swearing-in, Aldo was matched with an eleven year old youth named *Samuel. For the past five years, the two have remained together despite transitions in schools, teachers and social workers. Aldo says, “my youth had the peace of mind knowing that I would follow him through any potential placement changes.” Samuel is now 16 and a junior in high school.
Aldo describes his youth as bright, pleasant and respectful but says he struggles academically since he often doesn’t complete his work. As his CASA, Aldo was able to initiate an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for Samuel while he was still in middle school and would often check in with the school to follow up. Samuel’s IEP transferred to high school and Aldo says he’s encouraged to see his kiddo becoming more future-oriented. “He understands this is his last chance to pick up credits to graduate with his peers. We’re working together on a plan to make that happen. He’s very motivated.”
During their time together, Aldo finds ways to praise Samuel and frequently reminds him of his strengths. Although Samuel doesn’t always verbally respond, Aldo knows he absorbs the messages when he hears Aldo tell him, “you have what it takes, I believe in you, you can do this!” Aldo says, “As he was entering adolescence, there was a time he didn’t want to talk about his feelings or a rough day at school. I learned that when I’m with him, it’s enough to just be present. We don’t always have to talk about how he’s feeling and how things can be resolved.” Aldo adds with a laugh, “Once he hit 14, he was back to talking about anything and everything.”
During his five years with CASA, Aldo says he has always felt very supported by his case supervisors. He has had two during his time and they have attended meetings at the school with him as well as meetings with Samuel’s foster parent when needed. Aldo says, “my supervisor Jennifer Kordek is always asking what CASA can do to better support me. She is very attentive and resourceful. We problem-solve and brainstorm together, right now mostly about Samuel’s academics. She always follows up with me to see how things are going.”
Jennifer described Aldo as a crucial part of his youth’s team. “Aldo has helped Samuel mature a great deal. Aldo encourages him to really think about his future which has resulted in improving his grades in school, researching colleges and getting a job. This is a HUGE turnaround from a year ago and demonstrates how beneficial it is for a young male to have a positive male mentor in his life. Aldo is consistent, follows through, leads by example, takes initiative, and has a strong work ethic. I am beyond grateful for all that he has done and continues to do.”
When asked what he’s learned during his time as a CASA, Aldo says, “My kiddo has taught me a lot and helped me grow in many ways. He has taught me how to be patient, how to be resilient and how to interact with a teenager. We’re there for our youth but there is a way in which our youth help us.” Aldo adds, “My experience with CASA has taught me that the human connection is very, very important. It can be life-changing. I’m used to being a “fixer” but can’t always do that - not everything needs to be fixed.
Aldo says he will continue to volunteer as a CASA as long as his youth wants him to be in his life. “I want him to be empowered to choose how long to maintain the relationship,” said Aldo. “I have been creating a scrapbook for him with pictures from our outings and various CASA events. I am doing this so he has a way of remembering not just our experiences together, but the things and people he met along the way.”
Aldo closes by saying, “CASA is an organization I’ve really grown to love. I definitely believe in the mission. Everyone on the CASA team is amazing and does a good job of making me feel valued, heard and supported. It’s been an amazing journey which I will continue as long as I am able.”
*Name changed to preserve privacy