The fledgling Northwest Oklahoma CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) program recently received a big boost in the form of a $40,000 CASA Association New Program Development grant.

The money will be used to help fund recruitment efforts and volunteer training as well as general program development costs, according to Alma Santiago, program director for Northwest Oklahoma CASA.

With an ever growing number of CASA programs throughout the United States, currently there are “1,000 different programs in the nation,” Santiago noted that the grant process is “a highly competitive deal.”

“We were lucky that we were found worthwhile to receive $40,000,” she said, noting that the money will go a long way toward getting the program, which only just opened its doors in March, off to a good start.

But although “extremely honored for community to be awarded this grant,” Santiago noted that “on the downside, it goes to show how much the community is in need of this service.

“It proves that there are children of this area in need of advocates to be their voice,” she said.

Santiago explained that through the CASA program, carefully selected and trained volunteers act on behalf of children in abusive or neglectful situations to determine what would be best for the child, such as in placement issues, and then makes a third-party recommendation to the court.

Currently the Northwest Oklahoma CASA program has five such advocates, she said.

Because only one of those advocates is male, Santiago noted that the program is “focusing on recruiting male volunteers.”

She explained that more male volunteers are desired because “little boys tend to relate better to male volunteers.” In addition, she noted that in many cases, “these children, in general, need positive male role models.”

All in all, though, Santiago noted that she would like to have at least 15 volunteers, male and female.

Ideally, she said “it would be nice to have enough to have one volunteer for each case” as well as have enough volunteers to expand the program into another 11 area counties that currently do not have a CASA program.

In order to become a child advocate through the CASA program, volunteers must go through “an in-depth background check and be able to provide references,” Santiago said. After passing the initial background test, she said the potential advocate must then complete a 30-hour training course, which includes at least two hours of courtroom observations.

Once they have completed the training, the advocates will be ready to take on cases, Santiago said. The advocates are limited to a maximum of two cases at a time, she said, noting that each case requires an 18-month commitment from the volunteer.

“It takes a special kind of person to become a child advocate,” Santiago said, noting that among all the other requirements, a volunteer advocate “must also have a very compassionate heart.”

To learn more about becoming a CASA volunteer, the CASA program, or to request CASA assistance for a child in need, contact Santiago at (580) 256-2182.

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