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Running for Children’s Futures

news2-1Local professional runner leads Wharf to Wharf team to help foster kids

Among the approximately 600 kids admitted into foster care in Santa Cruz County last year was a 7-year-old boy and his 8-year-old sister. 

Both children, however, thought they were 5.

Their parents led them to believe this so that if anyone asked the children why they were not in school, they could answer that they were only 5 years old—too young to incriminate their parents for not enrolling them.

The judge for their case recognized that these kids had especially difficult circumstances, and requested that two volunteers from Court Appointed Special Advocates of Santa Cruz (CASA) be assigned to the kids. CASA is a nonprofit that pairs foster kids in tough situations with adult volunteers who serve as mentors, making sure the child’s education and new home life is going well, and forming consistent relationships—sometimes the only consistent relationship the child has during their case, which usually last around two years.

The advocates assigned to the brother and sister pair ensured they were in safe housing and gave them emotional support. They also helped with special tutoring so they could catch up with their peers educationally.

“None of us here at CASA will forget the day they came running into the house saying, ‘We can read!’” says CASA Director of Development Linda Bixby. “There wasn’t a dry eye here.”

The first CASA was founded in Seattle in 1977, when a juvenile court judge spoke out about the lack of information available to him about the foster children whose fate he was deciding. He had the idea for adult volunteers, who would be sworn officers of the court, acting as middlemen who get to know the kids and then advocate on their behalf in court.

CASA of Santa Cruz, which recently welcomed in a new board of officers led by ocean research specialist Susan Coale, is now one of 933 programs in the national network. It was founded in 1991 after a particularly tragic case of child abuse caught the public’s attention.

“It was recognized that the foster care system is really overburdened, and unable to provide the degree of attention the kids in the system really need,” says Bixby. “The presence of one individual in [children’s] lives during this scary time of foster care really makes a profound difference in their lives.”

news2-2Brett GotcherCASA trains and assigns advocates to about 200 children a year, and there is usually a waiting list of around 30 cases. As a private nonprofit, more than half of CASA’s budget comes from community donations. They have two big fundraisers a year, one of which is participation in Wharf to Wharf.

The annual six-mile race from Santa Cruz to Capitola attracts a range of participants, from recreational runners to world-class athletes such as Watsonville native Brett Gotcher, an alternate for the 2012 U.S. Olympic track team. Gotcher, who says he has run the race too many times to count, will be running at this year’s Sunday, July 28 race as honorary captain of Team CASA, a group of more than 70 runners who will raise money for the organization through pledges. This is the second year CASA has participated in Wharf to Wharf.

“One of the reasons I moved back is so that I could be involved in the community a little bit more,” says Gotcher, an Aptos High and Stanford alumnus who recently returned to the area from Arizona. “[Team CASA] turned up and was the perfect opportunity to start that.”

Gotcher is currently training to try for a spot on the 2016 Olympic team. He called being an alternate for the 2012 team “bittersweet,” but his passion for running doesn’t seem to have wavered—he recently returned from a month of training in Flagstaff, Ariz., where the high elevation helps runners increase their lung capacity.

Bixby says she looks forward to Gotcher’s words of inspiration for Team CASA. As for Gotcher, he’s excited to help the organization, and also to race in such a familiar setting.

“This community has given me so much in all my time here, and I just remember being in high school and having so much support all the time,” he says. “It’s always a blast to run in front of a home crowd.”

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