Callaway County foster children now have three new friends they can count on.
Linda and Trent Willenburg of Fulton and Mary Beth Stephens of Hatton were sworn in as non-attorney officers of the court Tuesday at the Callaway County Courthouse, to participate in the newly founded Callaway arm of Heart of Missouri Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a group that matches volunteers with children to stand up for them as they go through the foster system.
"CASA volunteers are important, so kids have a voice in the court and don't get lost in the system," said Kelly Hill, CASA program coordinator. "We want to make sure the kids get a safe, permanent home as soon as possible."
This marks the first class of volunteers to enter the program in Callaway County. The program received a grant that allowed them to begin operating here last year.
CASA volunteers are matched with a foster child, often a victim of abuse or neglect, to serve as an advocate for that child throughout their case process, attending all court proceedings and visiting the child twice a month at home to make sure they're receiving good care.
Family Court Administrative Judge Leslie Schneider, who swore in the volunteers, said she considered them an "integral" part of the foster system, and noted CASA volunteers have brought changes such as new foster homes or special treatment based on their recommendations.
Volunteers of all walks of life are welcome and needn't have any experience; CASA requires about three weeks of training, including several weekend classes, before volunteers are sworn in.
Linda Willenburg said she and her husband learned of the organization through SERVE, Inc., and wanted to volunteer.
"I decided I wanted to be involved with children, because my children have grown up and moved out," she said. "I thought maybe this is some way I could give back to the community and help children who didn't deserve to be going through this."
The three Callawegians were joined by Lisa Dresner of Boone County, who will join two other volunteers in helping kids there. The 13th Circuit Court, which serves Boone and Callaway, normally averages about 260 foster children according to Hill, but currently has more than 350 kids in the system; about one-third of them are in Callaway.
Hill said she was pleased with the turnout for the first class, but noted she hopes to have five to 10 volunteers for Callaway by the time the next class convenes on May 23,
Candidates must be 21 years or older, pass a background check and have a compassion for kids. An informational meeting for those interested will be held 6:30 p.m. tonight in the Callaway Electric Cooperative building.