The ribbon cutting ceremony for the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Southwest Missouri’s new headquarters and clubhouse began with a song.
Flockapella, a Glendale High School performance group, sang an acapella rendition of Bill Withers’ 1972 hit, “Lean on Me”, as some 200 people clapped to the beat. The cheerful song of goodwill was a testament to the day’s celebration. After a year and a half of campaigning and development, CASA has begun operations in its new headquarters on Glenstone Avenue and cut the ribbon May 23.
“I’m happy to say today with this celebration and this ribbon cutting and the success of this campaign, we are showing our children in foster care that they matter, that our community cares about them, and that you all see them and value them,” said CASA executive director Laura Farmer.
The amount of foster children in Greene, Christian and Taney counties tripled to more than 1,100 over the past five years. The COVID-19 pandemic “did not do any favors” for the foster care system as it increased stress and burdens for families, said Esther Munch, CASA’s director of development. With the quick influx of foster children, CASA outgrew its previous office space.
A need for more CASA volunteers
A little over 400 children are currently served by CASA, but the organization has its eyes on a larger goal now that its new facilities are ready.
“We’ve got over 1,100 kids in the foster care system in that three-county area, and not even half of them are served by a CASA volunteer,” Munch said. “Our goal is by 2030 to change that, because every child needs a CASA.”
There are currently 14 CASA staff members — including three news hires — who recruit and supervise volunteers. The new headquarters has space for at least 20 staff to expand CASA’s services. The nearby clubhouse, “the first of its kind in Missouri,” will open in the next few weeks and provide foster children with a safe space to play nearby, Munch said.
“With this building, for example, if a child is taken into care, they may not have to go sit at the DFS office and wait for a home,” Munch said. “They would now be able to come into a child-friendly environment and wait while their worker makes that happen for them.”
Inside the CASA clubhouse
CASA’s collaborative plans for the clubhouse include providing teens with valuable life skills by hosting cooking, budgeting and laundry lessons. Farmer told the crowd it will also be a space to host supervised family visitations that will support reunification efforts.
Munch said the clubhouse will also serve as a space for CASA volunteers to bond with the children they help through play, or simply sitting down to read a book together.
State Rep. Melanie Stinnett, R-Springfield, was among the attendees.
“I think this is such an important space for children that are in foster care, having a safe space within our community,” Stinnett said. “I’m really excited. I think it really just highlights our Southwest Missouri region and the great, wonderful things we can do because we’re so collaborative.”
Thinking about the next legislative session, Stinnett said she wants to make sure the medical needs of foster children are being met by Medicaid, a service many of them rely on.
Dan and Kim Piddington, CASA donors for whom the headquarters are named, helped cut the ceremonial ribbon. For them, supporting children in foster care hits home. Two of their grandsons were adopted through the foster system, and the couple planned on finalizing the adoption of their third grandchild in California May 24.
“That’s quite a process, and we’ve learned the [adoption] process. That’s why CASA advocates are so instrumental in all this stuff,” Dan Piddington said. “I couldn’t find a better place to give.”
Looking forward, Munch said the new facilities are “a game changer” for CASA.
“This building is enabling us to grow, which in turn means we can serve more volunteers that will serve more kids,” she said.