This month we shine our spotlight on Advocate Gabe Nava!
Gabe’s heart for foster kids has led him in various paths and eventually in the path of becoming a CASA. As a foster parent for three years, Gabe and his wife experienced firsthand what it’s like to care for a child who has been abused, abandoned, or neglected. In time, Gabe became aware of our program through the various connections in the foster care system. Gabe recalls that once he found out for himself more about our mission, he was sold out immediately. More than anything, Gabe liked the idea of the two-year commitment to provide a stable and possible permanent connection to a child in the foster care system. It was an easy decision, says Gabe, who has now been a CASA for nearly six years!
Gabe’s enthusiasm and perseverance is exactly what *Mike, his CASA youth, needs since Mike’s past traumatic experiences have damaged his ability to trust. Gabe shares that Mike does not trust anyone, but through patient mentorship, Gabe has been able to see little glimpses of progress toward building a trusting relationship. Gabe shares that the one thing Mike relies on is their consistent visits which have been every other week for the past four years, with just a few exceptions. Gabe’s positive outlook helps him to focus on the steps forward and not on the setbacks. You see, Mike is not expressive, but that is just part of his personality and past experiences. There is no huge display of emotion. Smiles are hard to come by, but every so often, Gabe has been able to get him to show a smile. Gabe is confident that their connection is growing since Mike has mentioned to others that his CASA is an important part of his life and he is never declined an outing or visit. Gabe just keeps showing up and accepts that Mike is a quiet, shy guy.
As far as Gabe’s style of mentorship and advocacy, he says he likes straight talk and open/honest conversations. Gabe’s aim is to be reliable and to communicate well with Mike so that he may also serve as a role model for him. Speaking of straight talk, Gabe shared that the current pandemic has set him back in terms of the progress in nurturing the CASA/youth relationship. However, Gabe feels fortunate that Mike does not have huge mental health challenges. Yet the lack of in-person contact has made it difficult to maintain good communication with Mike, who is already prone to being reserved. Gabe says that it’s hard to gage how Mike is really feeling, but he is staying the course is doing his best to come up with creative ways to connect. Gabe is also comforted knowing that Mike is now living with family members and seems to be doing well. They look forward to the time when they can resume their adventures together.
Gabe and Mike’s have a unique tradition which began when Gabe discovered what kind of food Mike was most interested in to try on their first outing – tamales. Mike was only nine years old so Gabe was surprised. Gabe made their first meal a special one by going for tamales at El Cholo Restaurant. This was the beginning of their quest to try foods from all cultures. To date, they’ve eaten their way through every continent, including unique cultures that are not well-known. Gabe takes the time to research the internet to find international foods in the area. Their taste buds are very adventurous and usually finish their meals with maybe one or two exceptions. Gabe recalls that Mike was 11 years old when he tried Sushi for the first time and loved it! They also rate their meals with thumbs up, down, or sideways and take a selfie to document their adventure. They plan to get a map they can mark up with all the different countries they’ve “visited” in a culinary way. Looking back, they’ve noticed that 90% of their ratings are thumbs up. Since they’ve exhausted almost every option in OC, they are now experimenting varieties within a particular dish, like various kinds of BBQ. Gabe wanted to emphasize that this tradition is clearly child-driven and that he’s just enjoying the ride!
Navigating the foster care system, is not a ride in which a child should feel alone. Gabe is there to stand with Mike when events have fallen through creating disappointment and loss. Gabe wants Mike to feel empowered so he created a yearly tradition to go over their “CASA Contract.” Gabe and Mike review three main points on their CASA anniversary: 1) As a volunteer, I’m here because I want to be here; 2) Mike is not stuck with Gabe; Mike can fire Gabe at any time, but needs to give him a good reason; 3) Mike can trust that Gabe will keep things confidential, unless it is a safety issue. Year after year, Gabe would uphold this tradition, but this year it was Mike who reminded Gabe that it was time to review their contract which is actually a piece of paper with their signatures. This “contract” will go into the scrapbook Gabe is putting together for Mike along with hundreds of mementos.
Being a CASA is very special and it comes with certain responsibilities which are not always necessarily fun, Gabe said. Court report writing, for example, would be Gabe’s least favorite task. However, in his usual positive outlook, Gabe says that it can be a good exercise of reflection and that he always feels good after writing his court reports which he calls “Reflections Report.” to make it sound more enjoyable. As to his favorite thing about being a CASA, Gabe says that there are too many positives, but one thing he would highlight is the support he gets at CASA, especially from his supervisor. Gabe feels understood, supported, and appreciated by his supervisor, Kari Becker. Most of all, Gabe feels rewarded to be Mike’s CASA. Gabe goes on to say that the more he gives, the more he receives. His time and resources spent, including the uncomfortable moments, can’t compare to the rewarding feeling he gets after every visit. “It’s a reciprocal nature of volunteering,” Gabe says.
Gabe would like to encourage other CASAs to be creative in figuring out what will make your mentee click. Gabe advises to look for clues, observe your kids, and ask questions about the things they like or dislike. Gabe also advises to be patient through the uncomfortableness of silence. Meet them where they're at and remember to focus not so much on their age but their stage. Speaking of creativity, Gabe wanted to share that his next adventure with Mike is to attend a cooking class together, once the world opens up again!
*Name changed to protect confidentiality.
Gabe’s supervisor, Kari Becker, shares: “Gabe Nava has been a CASA for nearly 6! I have had the pleasure of overseeing and working with Gabe on his case for about 2 years. Gabe is patient and kind, and that has successfully helped him develop a wonderful relationship with his youth. Something that is so unique about Gabe and his youth's relationship is that (pre-COVID) they would eat their way around the world. Each visit they would converse over a meal from a different country. This has opened up his youth's world and exposed him to so many different cultures, over something so simple: a meal. After each meal, they take a picture with either a thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs to the side, rating the meal. Through this adventure together, I have seen their relationship blossom, especially his youth, who rarely shows any emotion or word. I am certain that this special bond will continue on for the many years to come. I constantly hear praises about Gabe from all the professionals and caregivers involved in this case. Thank you Gabe, for being so devoted to CASA, you are a gem!