By Sara Blake
"The one question that comes to my mind most often is what if she didn't have CASA?" says CASA volunteer Elizabeth Marks. "I will always be a supporter because CASA is what it says it is: we help make sure that kids have a voice."
To anyone who knows Elizabeth, it's not a surprise that she's a CASA volunteer. Before CASA, Elizabeth was an AmeriCorps member and an ELL Instructor with Manos de Cristo, and she currently volunteers with Casa Marianella Immigration Legal Services (a pro bono immigration clinic for refugees). Elizabeth also does community projects with her church small group, and even runs her own business offering hair services for free to kids in need. And all this is on top of her pursuit of a law degree and transitioning from her office management job at a law firm.
"I studied Spanish and political science in college," Elizabeth shares. "I started learning Spanish at 15 years old… I remember walking down the hall at school, hearing people speaking another language, and just wanting to learn more about their culture." Love of Hispanic culture led Elizabeth to study abroad in Mexico for a semester. Elizabeth especially loves learning about other cultures through cuisine (some favorites being Nigerian and Colombian food), and dance. "If my body had its own non-verbal language, it would be dance. Bachata, salsa, ballet, hip hop, my church dance ministry, awkward at-home dancing… all of it!"
Elizabeth has lived in Tennessee, Oklahoma and now Texas. With her whole family including parents, older siblings and nephews still in Oklahoma, Elizabeth says she's gotten good at maintaining long-distance relationships. "Family is really important to me, and one of the hardest parts about being here is being away from them. So I go back and visit for birthdays!"
"I did my best to make it comfortable for her from the get-go, while still being direct and assertive. It's helped us create a strong, authentic relationship."
Her first case with CASA has Elizabeth working with a teenage girl. Elizabeth values the fact that they have both worked to build trust by setting healthy boundaries. "I was nervous about boundaries. I knew going in that this was going to be the area I was going to be challenged in, and I didn't want to be a pushover. But I did my best to make it comfortable for her from the get-go, while still being direct and assertive. It's helped us create a strong, authentic relationship."
Empathy has helped Elizabeth relate to the other parties on the case as well. "You can start to see not only the child's perspective but also the placement's and the parents. It teaches you to read between the lines even when not much is being said," Elizabeth shares.
"By removing kids their suffering is often more drawn out. We need to look at that. Let's make sure we're not putting them in greater harm or causing more trauma when they're in the system."
Her work with CASA has already helped Elizabeth decide that when she becomes an attorney, she wants to work in the child welfare system. "I see where lawmakers could adjust the system to better focus on the kids," says Elizabeth. "One thing that’s frustrating is that by removing kids their suffering is often more drawn out. We need to look at that. Let's make sure we're not putting them in greater harm or causing more trauma when they're in the system."
Elizabeth's topic for a keynote speech goes right back to empathy. "We all experience a lot of the same highs and lows of life, so why don't we view each other through that lens of commonality? Everyone is so concerned with making sure they don't mess up, seeming perfect, not having hardships. But when the person you're putting the face on for is dealing with the same struggles, why not have compassion and support each other?"
"CASA has broadened my awareness of other organizations and individuals whose objective is simply to help make our community a better place. That's exciting, isn't it?"
"One thing that I find myself doing a lot is thanking other people on the case. There are beautiful-hearted people all around doing great work that often goes unnoticed," says Elizabeth. "It's easy to get caught up in the media and the troubles that are around us, and completely miss that there is so much good still happening. CASA has broadened my awareness of other organizations and individuals whose objective is simply to help make our community a better place. That's exciting, isn't it?"
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