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story.lead_photo.caption From left, Marsha Allen, Mahlet Gemechu and Joy Sweeney stand together Dec. 13 at the Council for Drug Free Youth office building. Photo by Sally Ince / News Tribune.

Editor's note: For several charitable organizations, the holiday season — like the rest of the year — is a time to help those dealing with some of life's toughest problems and providing solutions to those problems. In the week leading up to Christmas, the News Tribune is using its "A Christmas Wish" series to showcase individuals whose lives were impacted by United Way of Central Missouri partner agencies and donors.

Over the last week, the News Tribune featured several clients whose lives were changed because of local nonprofits' services and generosity as part of the annual "A Christmas Wish" series.

While the News Tribune featured seven agencies, many of the United Way's 28 partner agencies could not provide clients due to confidentiality reasons, especially since many agencies work with children or abuse victims.

For Capital City Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), 62 volunteers advocate for more than 150 children who are in the court system after being removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect.

The volunteers are the voices for the children in court and the eyes and ears of the court in the community. They ensure essential records are forwarded to the judge and team working on the child's case.

They also build relationships with the children, and these relationships sometime run deeper and beyond the court system. Many of the volunteers receive calls and letters from children they advocated for and even celebrate birthdays with them, CASA Executive Director Gina Clement said.

"We had a teenager who was self-harming and really on a downward spiral," Clement said. "She's doing much better, but the volunteer is still the person that she calls when she's struggling and having a rough day. Then they (can) talk through it and get her back on track for where she needs to be and how to handle her bad days."

Clement said CASA's main goal is to help children get back on the right path and succeed in life, which is similar to Council for Drug Free Youth's mission.

Council For Drug Free Youth offers about a dozen programs and resources to students kindergarten through 12th grade throughout Central Missouri. These include peer-to-peer, facilitated and recognition-based programs.

One of the oldest and most popular programs is Safety Kids, in which the fifth-graders learn songs and dances to perform for kindergartners through fifth-graders. After the Safety Kids summer camp, a fifth-grader told his mom that he wished his biological father was still in his life so he could educate his dad on the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

"It was a 10-year-old realizing that his father made choices about drugs and alcohol that kept him from ever being able to be part of his son's life," said Dr. Joy Sweeney, executive director of the Council for Drug Free Youth. "That will stick with him forever and it's just so rewarding to know that he's getting that much out of this program."

Some agencies were unable to provide clients for the News Tribune's "A Christmas Wish" series due to the sensitive nature of their organization. For Rape and Abuse Crisis Service, it provides shelter, food, clothing, counseling and other resources to women who have been victims of sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking. It serves nine counties: Cole, Morgan, Moniteau, Miller, Maries, Gasconade, Osage, southern Boone and southern Callaway.

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For one woman who was jobless and had lost almost everything due to financial hardships, RACS was her last hope. She lived with a relative in a stressful and emotionally-abusive situation and was physically assaulted by a friend of that relative. In a note to RACS awareness coordinator Sue Engelage, the woman said she had "nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help."

The woman called RACS and was able to receive services. She now has a full-time job and a stable home.

"To me, that is the most humbling feeling in the world because when we get some of these ladies, we see them at their most absolute worst, and to help them turn around and be at their best, it's amazing," Engelage said. "Every day, they seem to find new strength and because of their new strength, we at the shelter also find new strength."

In this series:

Introduction: United Way helps 28 local agencies

'Match' fills voids for Big Brothers Big Sisters pair

Center of Hope helps woman start new life

Capitol Projects 'more than just a job'

Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association gives children safe place to land

Special Learning Center - 'Miracle child,' driven by 'inner light,' defies odds

Boys and Girls Club gives family new opportunity

Smiles abound at Little Explorers Discovery Center

Conclusion: United Way agencies help children, victims


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