Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) recently awarded Ruth Hawkins with the very first Pioneer Award for her commitment to the mission of CASA, which is: "CASA gives a voice to abused and neglected children as assigned within the court system. A voice is provided for children in need of a safe, permanent, nurturing homes as we strive to break the cycle of abuse and neglect through community collaboration."
Victoria Benge, the executive director of CASA of Madison County, explained the Pioneer Award is meant for those who have "worked tirelessly to reconstitute or create new and existing programs for CASA over the last three years."
Benge said that before Hawkins began in Madison County, the CASA program was almost non-existent, and Hawkins worked tirelessly to get the program started.
Hawkins explained that the Madison County program was in the process of shutting down before she stepped in. The services the program was able to provide had dwindled, and the board had declined in membership, Hawkins said. At the time that Hawkins started, there were only five board members, and CASA regulations require at least 15.
"I offered to step in and do what I could to try and bring the program back to life," Hawkins said.
Over the three years that Hawkins worked with Madison County CASA, she procured a donated office space, worked to bring in board members from the surrounding local area and wrote many policies and procedures. Along the way, she worked with the state CASA organization to be sure they were meeting every guideline, Hawkins said. Benge said CASA in Madison County now has 46 active volunteers who serve 88 Madison County children.
Once the Madison County CASA had a firm foundation, Hawkins helped create a grant that was meant to hire an executive director for the organization. Once the executive director was hired, she gradually began to move out, Hawkins said.
"I remain a supporter and step in as I am needed," she said.
One way that Hawkins is staying involved is through her CASA quilt project. In January, Hawkins started a drive to give handmade quilts to children as Christmas gifts. The organization started with a goal of 80 quilts and has been provided with more than 100, Hawkins said.
"Every child served by CASA will receive a quilt," she said.
CASA in Madison County trains community members to be advocates for children who are in the foster care system, Hawkins said. The volunteers will stay in their assigned child's life for up to three years to ensure they are happy and healthy.
Each volunteer goes through an extensive training program of at least 30 hours where they learn about the court system, how to work with children, what information they will have access to about the children and more, Hawkins said. Then, volunteers are appointed by judges and are therefore officers of the court, so they can meet with doctors, foster care parents, biological parents, teachers and more.
Volunteers are required to meet their appointed child once a month, but most will do more than that, Hawkins said. Volunteers can do things such as read to the child or help them with homework.
"The volunteers have a realistic view of how the children are doing, and the kids may share information with them that they don't anyone else," Hawkins said. Because of this, volunteers are required to submit reports to family court or give verbal affirmation to the judges.
The Pioneer Award isn't the only award that Madison County CASA and its members have been awarded this season. At the annual conference, "Advocating for Kentucky's Children -- The Power of One Caring Adult" held by Kentucky CASA Network, Madison County CASA was awarded The Program of the Year Award.
"The Program of the Year Award is always given to the CASA program in the state that has shown growth in numbers of children being served, fundraising efforts and community collaboration and engagement," Benge said.
Benge said Madison County CASA plans to keep moving in the same direction of serving more children.
"We will continue to have high standards for our volunteers, staff and board of directors, ensuring that we are providing the highest levels of advocacy that we can to these children," Benge said.