In the drawing, the house is disheveled, pots and pans fill the sink, food is scattered atop the counter, laundry sits unfolded, toys are strewn about and cabinets are agar. A mother sits on the couch, puffing a cigarette, flipping through TV channels. A toddler plays with marbles scattered across the floor. His bottle sits next to her ashtray. The father is just coming in from work—toolbox in hand—while another child tugs on his coat sleeve.
Susie Weller uses a situation similar to help train her team of volunteers on how to assess different family situations. What are the positives in this home? There’s food on the table and the father has a job.
The hardest part of training volunteers, Susie Weller says, “ is separating them from their own personal experience, their own reality, and helping them look at this other world.”
Weller works for Children First Inc., a nonprofit in Athens, Georgia. She serves as the volunteer coordinator for Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, one of the five programs Children First administers. CASAs are the eyes and ears of judges in juvenile court and a voice for the children trapped in the foster care system.
Weller graduated from The University of Georgia with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work. In 2008, one of her friends reached out to her about CASA. With a background in service and an interest in children, Weller seized the opportunity to work for change.
Almost seven years later, Weller continues to give back to this community that she has been a part of since her college years. She leads by example, “with grace, with a good attitude, with acceptance and care for people that society has turned their back on,” said Alex Sklut, a former CASA who was trained by Weller.
To become a CASA, volunteers go through a rigorous training program implemented by Weller, including five in-person sessions and an online component. Weller has 10 to 20 volunteers in a session, which occur every couple of months. “Of all national organizations, the CASA training is one of the best, its very thorough, very in-depth volunteer training,” Weller said.
Weller is the mastermind being this comprehensive training. Being a CASA is not your typical volunteer role.
“It’s not just meeting with the kids and then going home, or taking them to the park or the Halloween festival,” Weller said. “It’s meeting with them and then meeting with everybody else.”
After a volunteer completes training, Weller provides them with all the information she has on a case. The volunteer then contacts immediate relatives, the foster family and the school, to discover all they can about the child’s life. The court system doesn’t have the resources to thoroughly investigate each child’s case, so without Weller and her team of volunteers, many children would remain in these deplorable situations or trapped in the child welfare maze.
Weller sends her team into the field and must be confident they will ask the tough questions.
“If it’s not asked then the judge doesn’t know,” Weller said.
CASAs have to find answers and get a full understanding of the child’s situation. Then they present their findings to the judge, who will use their report to determine how best to proceed with the case.
Finding answers to these questions can reveal deep faults in our nation’s foster care system. There are about 200 children in the Athens-Oconee system and Weller’s team can barely keep up with the demand.
Discovering hardships the children have faced is difficult for the volunteers. But that’s when Weller steps in and encourages the volunteers “to use self-care methods that work for them,” said Jane Ellison, a CASA volunteer coordinator.
Weller supports and reminds volunteers that their goal is to get these children to a safe and stable home as quickly as possible.
“The work that Susie does…the things that she sees and hears…it’s heavy to say the least, yet she is so light and genuinely kind,” Sklut said.
Weller orchestrates this team with passion and does her job with little recognition. She empowers others through her dedication and models the way. Sklut said,
“She really is an inspiring person… CASA is lucky to have her, and so is the Athens community."