by Sara Blake
At 22 years old, giving back is already a big part of CASA volunteer Claudia Hernandez's life. In fact, it was a year ago from the date of this interview that Claudia first interviewed to be a CASA volunteer! Today, she is a CASA all-star; serving as an Early Family Engagement volunteer, a CASA Ambassador, and fundraising for CASA on her own.
Originally from Mexico, Claudia moved to Austin at two years old with her parents and her two older brothers. "Dad would come to the States for work and decided that he wanted us to have a better education," Claudia shares. "He also needed a kidney transplant, which he got here, and is now doing great!"
One of the outcomes of Claudia's background is an increased sense of empathy. "I've always had that. I feel like a lot of it has to do with everything I've gone through with my family moving here. We lived in South Austin but didn't have the best schools nearby and had to transfer for middle and high school. Our new schools were in totally different neighborhoods, which exposed me to different cultures. People expected me to dress and act a certain way. Many people assumed I lived in a nicer neighborhood. I've always seen the stereotypes people have. Being bilingual—I don't look very Mexican and people are always surprised. Looking back, I wouldn't want someone else to wonder if they belong here."
Claudia has found a myriad of ways to use that empathy to make a difference, such as being part of She's the First; a nonprofit organization that fights gender inequality in education by providing scholarships to girls in other countries. Claudia's chapter sponsored two girls last year, and four this year. She is also a member of the Alpha Delta Chi sorority: "We partner with Ronald McDonald House Charities and get to go and cook for the families and do activities with them around Thanksgiving and Christmas."
"I want to see the progress on the life of a case. I sat in a grad school class and learned about play therapy for 3 hours, and it flew by! And I loved that it gave me things I could take back to my own CASA case now."
Even after much of her time being spoken for between school and involvement in other groups, Claudia found time to be a CASA volunteer as soon as she was eligible at 21. "I first heard about CASA in high school and was reminded right around my 21st birthday when I heard an ad on the radio." A year later, Claudia has "fallen in love with social work through CASA" and chosen it as her graduate study. "I want to see the progress on the life of a case. I sat in a grad school class and learned about play therapy for 3 hours, and it flew by! And I loved that it gave me things I could take back to my own CASA case now."
"During training you hear these intense cases, but it's a totally different feeling when you actually read the notes on your first case—I teared up. It's shocking that this stuff actually happens. And that there's someone out there right now that doesn’t have a CASA volunteer and doesn’t know that what's happening to them is wrong. It motivates me to help them, show them that this isn't the norm and that they have potential to break the cycles."
One of the things Claudia was nervous about before starting with CASA was how to make the children she worked with feel comfortable with her. "I visited them at their after-school program, and I didn't know if they would recognize me. But they came right up to me and were happy to see me!" says Claudia. "Another time I called my placement to check in, and they said the kids had been asking about me and were waiting to see me! It's nice to know that they understand I'm here for them. It's reassuring for anyone to know that someone's there who wants the best for you. Sometimes we don’t think kids see that, but they do. I always ask my kids if there's anything they need, if they're doing ok. They answer those questions."
As a CASA Ambassador, Claudia has the opportunity to join CASA out in the community and speak about CASA's work with the public. CASA Day at the Capitol was one such event; a day that advocates from all over Texas join together to share stories of advocacy and discuss legislation that can impact the lives of children. "It was amazing because I didn't know just how big the impact was! I was able to see what's going on with CASA as a whole, Texas CASA, etc. I didn't know any of the bills that we were trying to pass, such as trying to get birth certificates for kids who don't have one. A bill like that reinforces that a child in care is a person too, and that they can achieve anything."
Claudia is graduating from UT this May with degrees in Psychology and Business. She has recently decided to continue on for her Masters in Social Work, and she says that decision was a direct result of her work with CASA. "Last year I didn't know what I was doing with my life. I didn’t know what to do after college. I knew I wanted to work with kids but didn't know how or what. And I was graduating soon. But after getting involved with CASA in different ways, I've learned that there are so many things going on here that I feel passionate about. Whether it's going to court or coming to the office, I want to be here. It's great having that feeling."
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