By Sara Blake
Representation is a topic that matters deeply to CASA volunteer Mary Folse. She believes that regardless of one’s background or the color of their skin, their experiences and viewpoints matter. Not only is this what drew Mary to CASA in the first place, but it’s a value she takes seriously in her own family’s life. “I emphasize representation for my kids because I didn’t see that growing up,” shares Mary. “My kids are the only black kids in their class, and we don’t take that lightly.” Mary feels that “exposing children to other cultures, foods, religions and customs” gives kids a wider world view. “Now that the world is so much more connected, we have to get out there and participate, honor and value each other. The world needs our viewpoint too. That exchange is what’s going to make this world more full!”
Mary grew up as an only child with her mom in California and Las Vegas. “I always wanted a big family; I used to beg my mom to have more!” Mary laughs. With the intention of pursuing a law degree, Mary attended the University of Miami and studied political science and Russian history.
Before going on to law school, Mary returned to California where she taught middle school. “I saw a ton of different backgrounds through the kids I taught,” says Mary. “They are what made me want to continue working with kids.”
I do really believe in being an example for my community. I come from a family that’s really proud of their culture and heritage. I feel lucky to be able to share that with people.
After Hurricane Katrina, Mary felt a strong pull towards Louisiana. She moved there for law school and as it turned out, met her now-husband, Nathan. 7 years ago, the couple moved to Austin. Today, Mary and Nathan have 3 children, Isis, Nathan III and Sage; and Mary is a stay at home mom. She is incredibly active in her community (“I feel like I’m always at some PTA event!”) and uses that platform to show her children how to be engaged in the world around them. “I do really believe in being an example for my community,” Mary explains. “I come from a family that’s really proud of their culture and heritage. I feel lucky to be able to share that with people.”
Since starting with CASA, Mary quickly noticed that while most of the children and families are black and brown, the representatives are not. “A lot of things get swept under the rug when people say, ‘I don’t see color,’” explains Mary. “They mean well, but I don’t think that’s the best response to the problem.”
Mary’s legal background was an asset to her immediately on her first case, as she often found herself helping explain parts of the legal process to the family. But that didn’t mean she found the work easy. “I remember when a family member on my case looked at me and said ‘Oh, you work for them.’”, shares Mary. “I wasn’t prepared for that. What she meant was, you work for the ‘other side’. In this case, the child’s family was black, and CASA happened to be advocating for a Caucasian family as the placement. As a person of color doing this work to help champion children of color in the system, that was hard for me to hear. But it was good for me to realize that not everyone is going to see my true motives. And in the end, this is ultimately about the child’s best interest.”
In that moment, Mary leaned on her supervisor, Sabrina, to respond the right way. “Sabrina has dealt with situations like this before and was able to help direct me through my feelings. We have such a close relationship and I feel lucky I always have her to lean on.”
Another learning moment for Mary was during CASA’s race and ethnicity training, Knowing Who You Are. “I had no idea what ‘courageous conversations’ were, but I realized I was already having them without realizing it! The training just gave me better language to use when I spoke to others about racial identity. It really made me feel like I’m in the right place, and I believe it made me a better person, mother and CASA volunteer.”
On her current case, Mary has seen the impact of CASA through the behavior of the child she’s serving. “He’s so smart! I’ve seen him open up so much. At first, he had a lot of fear of people due to early trauma. But I’ve watched him grow from barely saying a word and not making eye contact, to talking and running around and playing with me. CASA has been a watchful eye to make sure he gets the therapy and other services he needs.” Mary also found that having 3 small kids of her own helped her understand some of the needs and behaviors of the child on her CASA case.
It can be difficult sometimes, but I just want to reiterate how supported I feel. Those times I need backup, my supervisor is there. It’s a big commitment and not easy, but it’s a team effort and so rewarding.
But at the same time, as a busy mom, Mary understands that committing to volunteer can feel daunting. “It can be difficult sometimes, but I just want to reiterate how supported I feel. Those times I need backup, my supervisor is there. It’s a big commitment and not easy, but it’s a team effort and so rewarding.”
Mary also serves on the CASA Volunteer Council (a group of CASA volunteers who meet throughout the year and provide input on the volunteer experience) and has attended our annual CASAblanca Gala. “I love seeing how many people love this organization and the kids in our community! We can all play our part.”
“I just feel really grateful to be a part of this work and this child’s life. That gratitude spills over into my life and family,” Mary says, smiling. “I honestly believe that being of service to someone else is the best thing you can do in your life.”
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2020 Featured Volunteer Story Volunteer Profiles February