A unique kind of Christmas Tree sits by the front doors of Dreaming Creek Brewery. Instead of being garnished with ornaments, paper envelopes with festive drawings and the age and gender of a child cared for by CASA hang from the branches of the tree. Inside those envelopes are a list of wants and needs of the child in question.
The Giving Tree is one of the most cherished traditions for the volunteers of the CASA of Madison and Clark Counties. CASA, or court ordered special advocates, is a non-profit organization which partners individual volunteers with abused or neglected children in the court system. The volunteers at CASA become a source of stability for the children they are paired with, serving as courtroom advocates, mentors, and friends.
“We love this, this is the highlight of our year – seeing how supportive our community is. We have had the most kids on our tree this year and people have already been so generous. We have the least amount on the tree tonight because people have already reached out to get them prior to tonight,” said CASA of Madison and Clark Counties Executive Director Victoria Benge.
180 children had their lists on the Giving Tree in 2022. Up roughly 40 kids from 2021.
2022 has been a landmark year for the local CASA branch. Benge was recently named Kappa Alpha Theta Program Director of the Year at CASA’s national conference on June 6. As part of the recognition, $20,000 has been granted to the CASA of Madison and Clark Counties. The money is to be used for staff, volunteers, and generally building up the program. The group also raised over $65,000 at their annual Superhero Gala.
Dreaming Creek has played host for the Giving Tree since its founding in 2018. Something that owner Charley Hamilton takes great pride in.
“We have been partnering with CASA since we opened in 2018. They provide a great service to our community so to be able to help them do that is an honor. The giving tree is a great way to provide needy kids with the Christmas that they might not have otherwise. Every year this event is a huge hit and Victoria and crew do a fabulous job. All the kids names get taken so quickly that it is amazing. It’s truly rewarding to be a part of that and see our community step up to help people,” Hamilton said.
Benge was thankful for Hamilton and the folks at Dreaming Creek in return. “(Dreaming Creek) is fantastic. We’ve had the Giving Tree since 2018 and every year we’ve had it here. Even during COVID-19 we’ve had it here. They are always so helpful and supportive when we reach out. They’re amazing,” Benge said. Benge noted that the people at Hitachi take a number of kids off the tree, and thanked them as well.
From 2018 to 2021, Kentucky was ranked as the worst state in the nation for child abuse. While that number has fallen since then, child fatalities have increased. The last report from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services reported a 22% raise in fatalities and near fatalities in children across the fiscal years of 2020 (171 fatalities) to 2021 (208 fatalities).
In 2021 alone, over 600 kids needed an advocate. There were 645 substantiated cases of abused or neglected children across Madison and Clarke Counties. Benge said the group will take as many volunteers as it can get. Volunteers have to be at least 21 years old and pass five background checks. They are also required to take 30 hours of training over the course of a month to learn CASA’s rules and the child welfare system.
“Anyone who’s interested in volunteering with CASA should just give us a call. We need volunteers. You can change a child’s story with just a little bit of your time,” said CASA Senior Volunteer Coordinator Stephanie Diej