Dec 20 2018
by Sara Blake
Like most couples after 18 years of marriage, Jennifer Deegan and Zach Richards seem to know everything about each other, including their differences. What makes Jennifer and Zach's relationship special is how they decided to use these differences for the very important things they have in common: their six-year-old son, Oliver, and more recently, their work as CASA volunteers.
After majoring in French at UT Austin, Jennifer went on to earn a Master’s degree from the LBJ school and eventually made a career in health policy and public affairs. Jennifer became familiar with CASA through her work on the Human Services Committee for the Texas House of Representatives. The committee, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Family and Protective Services, brought Jennifer in contact with Texas CASA and The Honorable Darlene Byrne, a longtime supporter of CASA. But despite her knowledge of the child welfare system, Jennifer didn't always feel equipped to be a CASA volunteer. "I was a little intimidated about actually volunteering for a while. I thought 'I'm not sure I can do this without having been a parent,' but in retrospect, that wasn't true."
Meanwhile, her husband's biggest passions lie in the creative field. Zach has spent more than two decades working in the music industry, giving him considerable experience in concert production and audio systems. When it came to becoming a CASA volunteer, Zach felt a little less prepared than Jennifer and found the training very helpful for that reason. "Even the really intense sections helped give me the emotional courage to be able to do this work."
Being co-CASAs on a case has given Zach and Jennifer the opportunity to work together in a new way. "We love being able to bounce ideas back and forth. We divide and conquer," says Zach. He goes on to explain how good Jennifer is with writing court reports and how easily she connects with teens; while Jennifer points out that interacting with younger kids comes more easily to Zach, and that he has no problem cold-calling teachers and counselors. Jennifer and Zach’s effortless rapport highlights how effectively they've learned to work together by combining their strengths and weaknesses.
Zach and Jennifer's first case consisted of a large sibling group that they shared with a third CASA volunteer. Zach describes the case as "very unpredictable; there were a lot of turns just when you think it's all sorted out. " Jennifer was amazed by the strength she saw in the kids on their case. "Despite all they had been through, they were so strong and resilient. I was impressed by how well they were all doing despite a whole host of challenges."
Jennifer often thinks about how she would want someone to treat their son Oliver if he were in a similar situation. "How would I want people to approach him? How could they best help him?"
Zach found himself zeroing in on important areas such as health and educational needs. "The family was navigating a number of systems, while dealing with serious health issues, school and placement moves, public housing, and food stamps. The mother was trying to deal with all of that herself. So we did our best to help her get those basic issues resolved."
Looking back, Jennifer is grateful for the perspective that being a CASA volunteer has given her. "It's easy to look at systems and budget and policy in my job. But I have a different view having seen a particular family and children within that system."
Zach was surprised by just how rewarding the CASA volunteer role has been. "It wasn't something I quite expected – of course it feels good to be contributing something, but it's more than that. With all the big picture things going on politically, this is a way to zoom in on something tangible happening in our community. It really is helping these kids be in a better place. I've caught the bug now!"
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