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CASA gets it's Dream a CASA

Foster children to benefit from the local non-profit’s new Watonsville home

Through large, automatic doors, down a long, sterile hallway, and up an old, musty elevator, a child finally reaches the familiar console of the CASA headquarters.

CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, is a private non-profit that matches trained adult volunteer mentors with a foster child. Founded in 1992, the organization currently operates out of offices on the third floor of the old Watsonville hospital. The locale is also where advocates can bring their foster child to play; although the children’s play room is a 10 by 10 room with no windows.

“It’s an institutional setting,” says Nancy Sherrod, executive director of CASA. “It’s not exactly a friendly type of place, it’s a big, old, echo-ey building.”

CASA, serving 180 foster children each year and 1,100 total since its inception, has long been suffering the growing pains of an entity that has outgrown its space. For almost a year, the group eyed a five bedroom Colonial house in Watsonville with hopes of it becoming their next home base. It was the vision of perfection, according to Sherrod —a spacious, homey place that could engender a warm environment for the visiting foster children. And although there is rarely good news that comes of the flailing economy, the house foreclosed late last year, and CASA was, despite all odds, able to buy its dream home.

“CASA has realized an extraordinary windfall with the sudden availability –at auction—of the very home it has been dreaming of and watching closely for nearly a year,” says Sherrod. Before it was auctioned off, its out-of-state owner was renting out the 3,500 square foot home. The asking price was $829,000, which seemed intangible for the small non-profit with a $600,000 annual budget, 74 percent of which is raised from the community. Together with costs for renovations and repairs that would bring the home up to code and meet zoning requirements, CASA needed to raise $1.5 million. In these times of ubiquitous penny-pinching, the prospect of reaching their goal with donations seemed grim —but thanks to a bridge loan from Santa Cruz County Bank and generous contributions from community members and foundations, CASA was able to raise 90 percent of this before even making the capital campaign public.

“We were kind of thrilled and surprised, but people in our community really step up for our children,” says Sherrod. Two of the largest benefactors were the Borina Foundation, donating $250,000, and Mary Solari, a long time donor who gave the group $300,000 to help purchase the house.

The public portion of the “Casa for CASA” campaign to reach $1.5 million was scheduled to start next month, but the house went up for auction before it could begin.

“While this economy is tough, the Board had faith the community would step up and support CASA in this huge endeavour,” says Marilyn Koll, CASA Board President. “What we didn’t count on was the sudden way the purchase of our ideal house came about.”

They announced their official acquisition of the property, located at 813 Freedom Boulevard in Watsonville, in early May. CASA will still launch the public capital campaign, asking the community to help them reach their remaining $115,000 funding need, which they hope to have raised by fall. If all goes as planned, they plan to open the house’s doors in early 2010 and be mortgage free by 2014.

CASA usually has a waiting list of 40 to 50 foster children. Once up and running, they expect that the new location—which is more than double the size of their current space— will allow them to hire an another case supervisor to oversee additional volunteer advocates, which will help them serve most of the wait-listed children. All of the children that come through CASA’s doors have been taken from their parents due to abuse or neglect, and many are constantly shuffled between homes and schools. The organization hopes that the big, pink Watsonville house will provide them with the home they never had.

“The whole downstairs we envision being a very warm, homelike, orderly environment,” says Sherrod. There will be a big kitchen for baking activities, a quiet library area, a computer lab where the kids can do homework, and “a comfy place to play board games and just hang out.”

In a county where the abuse and neglect reports exceed the state average, CASA finds it critical to show affected children the comfort of a stable home. There was nothing simple about acquiring the home, but, within its walls, they hope the county’s foster children will learn the meaning of the simple joys in life.

“These children have come from such chaotic homes, they haven’t experienced much of this... the simple joys we take for granted, like baking cookies or planting flowers,” says Sharrod. “In our new home, many of these children will be experiencing this for the first time.”

When asked how the children are reacting to the good news, Sherrod gives a small laugh, and says, “One of our advocates was driving by the house with her CASA child recently and pointed it out to her, saying ‘we can go there soon.’ The little girl looked at her and said, ‘I can’t wait to bake cookies with you.’”

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