Tony Walker’s main goal as the executive director for Children First, Inc, is to never see children again.
“I think the important thing is the big picture in what we do in the community. You know the cool part about what we do is, we know the work we do is impactful. [But] the hard part is that, if we do our jobs well it’s rare for us to see the kids,” said Walker. “If things go well for the children, we will never see them again because they’re not involved with our process. Which is good right? Probably the most rewarding thing is the knowledge that the work we do is impactful for families.”
Walker, who is originally from southeast Georgia, has been the director of Children First for three and a half years.
Walker thinks the most rewarding part about working Children First is the work they do.
Children First has four programs that work with and help children and their families that are in the foster care system, including CASA. Children First’s other programs are Family Time Community Visitation, Safe Care Family Visitation and SPARC (supportive parenting and access resource center).
Family Time allows children in juvenile court to have safe and scheduled visits with their parents. According to Walker, Family Time can provide services to up to 30 families a year and as many as 100 children. “It’s a long-term thing, about six to nine months. So we don’t have a lot of families at once time but we will have 40-60 hours of visits a week. We also provide transportation services for the families.”
Another program of Children First is Safe Care is a program that teaches families how to safely raise their children if they’ve been reported for mistreatment of their kids. It teaches them how to solve problems in a safe and appropriate way.
Safe Care is also a long-term program that lasts about 25 weeks and works with up to 40 families a year.
“Our programs are intensive, true social services. You know, we’re not going out and building houses or buying their groceries,” said Walker. “We’re providing life skills. We’re working with families, making sure they have the skills necessary to raise their children, to equip their children so they can handle the world and also helping parents be able to keep defects out of their lives, which is something, I think we all want.”
SPARC works with noncustodial parents and teaches them co-parenting skills and allows visitation to their kids.
The fourth and most well known of Children First’s programs is CASA, which is short for Court Appointed Special Advocate.
One of Athens-Oconee CASA’s biggest benefactors is the Kappa Alpha Theta chapter at the University of Georgia. Kappa Alpha Theta national wide’s philanthropy is CASA.
Gracie Hennelly, a member of Kappa Alpha Theta is in charge of fundraising for CASA. Theta raised over $12,000 for Athens-Oconee CASA last spring.
“I love being able to directly help these kids. Every year [Theta] has two meals on our lawn and all the money goes straight to CASA. Tony comes every year and some kids come. It is always a really fun time,” said Hennelly. “Tony and Susie came earlier this year to educate our freshman and sophomores about CASA.”
Anna Gildemeister, a senior at UGA and who is originally from Nashville, Tennessee, has recently become a CASA and is an intern for Athens-Oconee CASA. Gildemeister is also a Theta, but by coincidence was placed with CASA for her senior internship through the school of social work at UGA.
“I absolutely love working with the child that I am the [an advocate] for, and have really enjoyed getting to know the child’s family as well. I look forward to advocating for my child in court in the near future.”
Gildemeister loves being able to have direct interactions with her child and getting to meet everyone else that cares for her.
CASA volunteers go through a five-week training process in order to become a CASA. The training is half online and half in person, which is done here in Athens, Georgia. Training teaches the volunteers social work 101, juvenile court 101 and other skills they will need in order to advocate for their children.
Susie Weller, currently the program coordinator for Athens-Oconee CASA, has worked for CASA since 2008. Helping volunteers has been one of her most memorable experiences.
“The one that brings me the most joy is to watch volunteers make a difference in the life of children. Watching them come in, go through training. Watching them take the next step. Watching them say something in court. And watching people’s evolution as a volunteer which is really fascinating to watch.”
Weller said they have about 60 volunteers and could use up to 50 more in order to meet the needs of all the children who are in foster care.
According the Athens-Oconee CASA website there are over 7,000 children in the foster care in the state of Georgia and more than 250 in Clarke County.