By Callie Langford
January is National Mentoring Month, and we’d like to take this opportunity to let you know that, here at CASA, we are not mentors.
Yep… this month has very little to do with us!
But often people get confused about the role our volunteer advocates play, and we’re regularly described as mentors, so we’re going to take this opportunity to set the record straight and also tell you about some of our favorite actual mentors here in town.
Mentors are defined as trusted counselors or guides, so we understand why people might make that connection to our work. We do help children and families navigate the complicated child welfare system. Yet our role is actually different. We serve as the “guardian ad litem,” an official court representative in a Child Protective Services case required to gather information and present best interest recommendations to the judge.This appointment as guardian ad litem entitles our volunteer advocates to access information about the child's situation from medical, educational, and professional providers, and places CASA on equal footing with other child advocates on the case.
While we often do build strong, trusting relationships with children... our key role is to advocate for their best interest, not to serve as their mentor.
While we often do build strong, trusting relationships with children as we’re getting to know them and the adults in their lives, our key role is to advocate for their best interest, not to serve as their mentor. And our role ends when the case ends, whereas a mentor is usually meant to be a long term relationship.
Because our role on a case ends and we want kids to have healthy, ongoing adult connections, part of our advocacy for a child might involve finding them a mentor, especially for our teenagers. Three organizations here in Austin that help make that happen are Friends of the Children Austin, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas and Seedling:
Friends of the Children Austin’s mission is to break the cycle of generational poverty. Friends Austin pairs professional, salaried, full-time mentors, called “Friends,” with youth facing the greatest vulnerability and obstacles from kindergarten through high school. 12.5 years - no matter what. Friends Austin is the first and only professional mentorship program in Austin.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with a new organization, Friends of the Children, with a young boy on one of my cases. Currently, his mentor (called a “Friend”) spends about 4 hours a week with him at school. The Friend and the child’s teachers have noticed an improvement in behavior and academic performance since the mentorship started. The Friend is very communicative with CASA, and we’ve also seen him put a lot of effort into building the relationship with the child’s home placement. Overall, it’s been an awesome experience!” - Laura Honsig, Child Advocacy Specialist, CASA of Travis County
“We are so grateful for the opportunity to work alongside youth that have been impacted by the foster care system. Our professional, salaried, full time mentors, called “Friends,” empower youth to navigate social, emotional and academic obstacles by providing early intervention and longitudinal support to the kids who most need a Friend. We take an intentional approach to build rapport with teachers, caregivers and strong partners such as CASA, in order to provide comprehensive support to each child and family we serve. Our Friends spend time with youth in their classrooms and communities to work on collaborative goals in different environments.” - Marilyn Manzo, Program Director, Friends of the Children Austin
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas helps children succeed in life by providing them with caring adult mentors who offer guidance, friendship and support. In 2019, Big Brothers Big Sisters provided almost 60,000 hours of volunteer mentoring to approximately 1,000 children in Central Texas. More than 98% of their Little Brothers and Sisters stayed in school, improved their grades and avoided early parenting. Children enrolled in their program also attend college at rates that are higher than the national average for their peers.
“One teen on my case had a Big Sister mentor long before she entered the foster care system, and I’ve been so glad that this mentor has stuck with her throughout her time moving to different homes and cities. They have regular phone contact and her Big Sister has visited her in every new foster home, even travelling across the state. Her Big Sister is always someone this teen wants on her call list, and she talks about her as if she’s part of her family. It’s been great to have someone stay consistent in her life from before she entered the system.” - Madison Swenson, Teen Advocacy Specialist, CASA of Travis County
“Over 99% of the young people we serve face an Opportunity Gap – whether due to socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, family situation or other factors. The children we serve often have the odds stacked against them in ways that could lead to lower aspirations, educational achievement or hinder their success, however, with the help of their mentors they are taking steps to creating better and brighter futures.” - Joe Strychalski, Vice President of Programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas
Many children live without a parent at home due to incarceration. These youth often struggle to keep up with their peers academically and socially due to the stresses and challenges of parental incarceration. Through the Seedling Mentor Program, students experiencing parental incarceration are matched with adult volunteers who visit them at school, during the student's lunch, once a week. They provide support, encouragement, and friendship that ultimately empowers the student and helps them to build resilience.
“Seedling is grateful to have a partnership with CASA and the CASA community who have demonstrated remarkable dedication to supporting children in need. Through referrals from Travis County Judge Darlene Byrne, or directly from CASA employees and volunteers, Seedling and CASA have a long history of working together to support children challenged by parental incarceration." - Connie Howe, Director of Programs, Seedling
CASA Partners January 2020