This month we shine our spotlight on Advocate Karen Carson!
Karen is a star advocate who not only enjoys helping her CASA youth thrive to be her best self but also enjoys helping other CASAs learn how to build strong relationships with their youth. Karen first heard about CASA when she was working at a local credit union and her co-worker met someone who was working at Orangewood Foundation. Karen started to volunteer at Orangewood with the independent living program when a CASA approached her about the program. Karen was unaware of CASA program at the time but was intrigued as soon as she knew what kind of program it was. Though she was interested in becoming a CASA, she decided to wait for a year since she knew it was a greater commitment than she could take on at that time. She has been a CASA since 2018 and been with the same youth. Recently, Karen spoke at the 2020 CASA conference, specifically to other CASAs about how to build better connections with their youth through empathetic listening. She also leads core training for incoming advocates in which she discusses her role and perspective as an advocate herself.
Karen met Grace* in 2018 and has been her CASA for three years. Grace has been in seven different placements in only three years, struggled with mental health and school challenges, and had no one by her side except for her CASA. She suffered abuse from her father and had ongoing challenges with her mother. It seemed to Karen that no one ever told Grace that she was a good person or that she mattered, and she was often told “no”.
Karen describes Grace as compassionate, caring, and an animal lover who loves to dance. Karen’s first initial meeting with Grace was slightly awkward, but they easily got along once Karen started to ask her questions about herself. Grace wanted to have a CASA for a long time, so she was excited to finally be matched with someone. She and Grace seemed to hit it off from day one, but that is not to say it wasn’t difficult for Karen to build trust with her. Karen was tested from time to time and she had to learn how to say no and develop healthy boundaries with Grace. Grace has a difficult time trusting people, especially adults. So, when Karen came into her life it took time for that trust to develop between them. Karen had to work hard to gain her respect and trust. Grace did not like guidance nor help. Karen supported whatever Grace wanted to do and encouraged her to see her own strengths and positives. It took Grace about a year to realize that Karen was there for her and that she could trust her.
Consistency is key in developing trust with youth who have been through trauma. Grace deals with some mental health challenges that have been hard for Karen to see when she sees Grace struggle. Though it is difficult for Karen to see her suffer at times, she is always there for Grace when she needs someone to talk to and someone to lean on for extra support and comfort. Grace does not have a lot of support from other people, so when Grace was once admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal ideation, Karen went to visit her. Karen was the only person who visited her, and it meant a lot. She loves squirrels, so Karen decided to bring her a stuffed animal during her stay at the hospital. er face immediately lit up when Karen gave it to her. In addition to such challenges, Grace tended to have difficulty in school. She was not as motivated as Karen hoped, so Karen stepped in to advocate for her education as much as possible. Again, she was consistent and showed up to all meetings the school had for Grace. One time, Grace had an IEP meeting at her school and when Grace became frustrated, she stormed out of the room. Karen followed her to see what was going on and though she was adamant that she did not want to go back into the meeting, she agreed to at least attend via Zoom. Karen told her that she mattered and was able met her where she was at. Another example of consistency is when Karen attended one of Grace’s dance recitals. Karen was the only one in the audience who was there for Grace. Karen recalls Grace looking for her in the crowd and she knew at that moment that she mattered to Grace. Those little moments and the consistency that Karen continues to show her youth is the foundation of their relationship.
Grace is currently doing very well and living on her own. She is 19 years old in a transitional housing program where she is able to have her own apartment as long as she pays her rent, attends school and/or works full time. She is in the process of enrolling in school to finish high school. She is looking for a job as well. Karen has seen Grace mature into a beautiful, smart young adult who is able to manage conflict better and be independent. Karen expressed that all she needed was “a little water and sunlight to blossom”.
Over the past three years, Karen and Grace developed a relationship that was built on trust, understanding, and respect. Karen considers her youth a friend and knows that this relationship will not end once Grace turns twenty-one years old. Karen’s favorite part about being a CASA is that she gets to spend time with someone who she truly admires and knows their relationship is long-term.K aren recently moved out of state but has decided to remain on Grace’s case until it closes next year. Karen and Grace continue to talk to each other every month and will enjoy a meal together over Facetime frequently. Karen even flew out to visit her in March and will fly out again for her birthday this Fall. Karen’s view of the world has changed since becoming a CASA- she now has a better understanding of family units and the court system. Everyone has their own story and she feels she is more patient and understanding of the plight of others. Karen would like to continue to do more philanthropy and give back to others.
Karen’s advice to other CASAs is to not sweat the small stuff. It is easy to worry about every little thing your youth does but try to remember that if it is important to them then it is important to you. That is what truly matters. You are making an impact even if you do not feel that way. Expect the unexpected and do not commit to this role unless you know you are able to give yourself fully from the very start.
*name changed for confidentiality reasons
Karen's Case Supervisor, April Allton, shares: “Karen is a truly incredible advocate who exhibits the utmost care and professionalism. She has been assigned to her youth for the past 3 years. Her youth has not had an easy time and is not the easiest to connect with. Her youth pushes people away and doesn't trust easily. Karen has built a wonderful and caring relationship with her youth, being one of the only adults that her youth trusts. Karen possesses a skill set I have not seen often. She always shows unconditional love and acceptance, kindness, understanding, knowledge of trauma, is very proactive and is consistently engaged. Not only does she go above and beyond in her role as a CASA, but she also trains other CASA's! Her trainings are excellent and impactful. I am so lucky to have worked with Karen over these past 3 years and I learn and grow from her every day”.