This month we shine our spotlight on Advocate Sheri VanderDussen!
Sheri first heard about CASA several years ago while she was sitting in a jury room. She was particularly moved by the CASA mission and came to learn more about the program from one of her friends who was a CASA at the time. She continued to remain interested in the program and soon after she retired, she attended an information session at CASA-OC which began her CASA journey.
Sheri has been a CASA for five years and worked on several cases. Her advocacy work as a CASA made a profound impact on the lives of the youth she has served- she advocated for the needs of a young adult, showed up consistently for a teenager who had serious mental health needs and is now experiencing what it is like to advocate and mentor a youth during a pandemic. She is determined, experienced, patient, and most of all, is able to meet her CASA youth where he is at.
Sheri’s favorite part about being a CASA is the advocacy role and she was able to really dive into that role during her first case. Her first CASA youth, Jorge*, had an intellectual disability and a speech impediment. Though he had his high school diploma, Sheri quickly realized that he struggled with basic writing skills and reading comprehension. She also knew he did not have great social or life skills that would allow him to live independently. Sheri, being the team player she is, went to Jorge’s social worker to advocate for regional center services. Regional center services are typically assigned to a youth who needs additional services and support due to a disability. Given that Jorge was a non-minor dependent at the time (over 18 years old), it was more of a challenge for his application to be accepted. Sheri’s case supervisor suggested she reach out to his attorney since the social worker was not as proactive on the matter as she hoped. Sheri took her case supervisor’s advice and jumped on the opportunity to speak to his attorney about this need. The attorney was extremely helpful and agreed that Jorge needed regional center services. As a team, they helped Jorge submit his application; unfortunately, his first application was denied, but when he applied for it a second time it went through. He now receives SSI and landed a job at Disneyland. Sheri was a strong advocate for Jorge and showed him how to self-advocate. With all the key services in place for Jorge, his CASA was the one who recognized a need and fought for the services he should have been receiving long before Sheri was assigned to his case. Sheri was able to be Jorge’s voice when he could not be.
Sheri’s second case was much different than her first case and she thought it was more challenging. Her CASA youth, Ben*, did not show appreciation for her nor any interest in getting to know her. He was used to having people leave him, so it was very hard for Sheri to develop rapport and a trusting relationship with him. He had severe mental health issues and was hospitalized several times for making threats of harming others. For Sheri, it was not about having a reciprocal relationship with her youth, but rather, it was about advocating for the services he needed most and continuing to show him that someone cared about him. Sheri shares that with these kids “you plant seeds for them and hope that everything sprouts. What has happened to them has shaped how they view the world. We cannot fix them, but we can come alongside and try to help them overcome their trauma”.
Sheri just started another case and it is going well. Her CASA youth is feeling very isolated right now given the pandemic, so he really enjoys talking to Sheri on the phone. She feels lucky to have this case because she knows how hard it can be for kids in the foster care system to open up to someone, especially over the phone during a pandemic.
Sheri’s advice to other CASAs is to be patient. The hardest part about being a CASA for Sheri is not knowing whether or not she made a difference in their lives. She felt like she was able to bring joy to her first youth, but she is not so sure she brought joy to her second youth. Each case and youth is so different- some youth are more appreciative or more talkative than others, but that does not mean you do not matter to them. It’s all about meeting the youth where they are at and being ok with the relationship you have with them, even if it is not what you want or expect.
In her five years of being a CASA, Sheri has dealt with a myriad of experiences on each of her cases, all of which have made a significant impact on her own life. CASA has changed Sheri’s outlook on life as she shares, “[CASA] changed my perspective on what we can do to help other people and how people can often benefit from that help, if people can give them what they need as opposed to what we think they need”.
Andy Jacobson, Sheri’s case supervisor, shares this about her: “Sheri has been a dedicated CASA for the past five years. During this time, she has supported four different youth most of whom struggle with serious mental health issues, developmental disabilities and cognitive challenges. She has proven to be a most exceptional advocate for all her youth, tirelessly advocating for their special education needs, access to regional center and mental health services. She has been extraordinary in her collaboration with all professionals, some of whom looked to her for advice and guidance. Sheri has such a healthy approach when mentoring her youth and always works to meet them where they are at. She always makes that extra effort to research areas pertaining to her youth's needs and truly cares deeply about their future and wellbeing. It is such an honor to work with Sheri and we are lucky to have her as part of the CASA family.”
*Name changed for confidentiality reasons