One night, about 10 years ago, I went to bed with a sore back, and woke up in severe pain, not able to move from the waist down. I had suffered a spinal cord injury that left me paralyzed. After a few months of medical treatment there was no real improvement; doctors told me the problem was permanent and I might never walk again. I was 48 years old.
My vigorous life came to a standstill. I went through all the stages most people experience when they're suddenly disabled: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. After four months of intense rehab and much to my health caregivers' surprise, I could maneuver myself around in an upright position using arm crutches. I could, on my own terms, walk.
Prior to the injury, as a "Type A" personality, I had been extremely physically active. I continue to serve with American Red Cross as a volunteer Health and Safety Instructor going on 40 years now. Our family took advantage of New Hampshire's outdoor scene by camping in all seasons, although I particularly enjoyed winter camping - maybe because of my other hobby as a dogsled musher. My profession as an ultrasound engineer also provided me with the opportunity to travel coast-to-coast.
The dogs and dogsled racing had been a very important part of my family's life. I built a hand-lashed racing sled out of white ash. We built a kennel in our backyard -- a big fenced-in area so the Huskies could run and I could wrestle and play with them. That changed after my injury. The dogs sensed something was different and they never jumped on me. Those magnificent animals played a key role in my rehab. After being paralyzed, I literally had to crawl out to the kennel to feed the pack. But I wanted -- needed -- to do that. Eventually, I was able to get back on the dogsled. I strapped myself on with a harness and took my wife for a ride. The dogs seemed to know what my wife and I were going through and we valued their support.
But, in other areas of my life, after two years of not doing much, I realized I needed something else to keep me busy and make me feel needed. I told the big guy upstairs, "I'm ready for something."
Toward the end of 2000, my wife and I attended a Christmas party at a friend's house. I sat down on a couch next to a gentleman who also depended on crutches to get around. He told me he had M.S. (multiple sclerosis). I asked, "What are you doing to keep yourself from going mental?" He said he was a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for abused and neglected children. We talked all night. Monday morning I called the local program office, CASA of New Hampshire, to find out more. After an initial, comprehensive, screening interview I signed up for the training.
The 40 hours of CASA training were hard for me because I had to sit all day long -- a painful endeavor. But it captivated me. One morning the instructor showed us a film of children who had been involved in abuse and neglect cases. They spoke of what had happened to them and how their CASAs helped keep them safe and brought change to their lives. The voices of those children were incredibly powerful. That was the moment. I realized this isn't fun and games, and I knew I had to do this work. It was important that I become an advocate for these children and that I do the job well.
When a case of abuse and/or neglect comes into the New Hampshire family court system, judges usually appoint a CASA to serve as a guardian ad litem (GAL), for the life of the case with all the rights and privileges of a principal in the case. As a Court Appointed Special Advocate, I think of myself as the eyes and ears for the judge. I work with teams that often include the Division of Children, Youth and Families, school staff, mental health professionals, foster care and health care providers, family service professionals and others. I attend court review sessions and speak to what I deem to be in the best interest of the children. I write a detailed report prior to each court hearing telling the judge what has happened in the case while keeping the focus on the children. I promise to see each of the children on my cases at least once a month and I commit to remain the CASA until each case closes (some cases can stay open for multiple years). If the mitigating situation has been rectified, the children might safely reunite with their biological family; if not, they might be freed for adoption.
CASA has probably done more for me than I have done for the agency in that it has allowed me to feel productive. When I walk into a home where kids five years and older still wear diapers, older kids still sleep in cribs, Mom and Dad use drugs in front of the kids, or where kids encounter domestic violence all around them and perhaps to them, I say to myself, "I can help change this situation." Then I'm thankful I've been given the opportunity to make a difference in a child's life.
I've changed since the day I took my first case eight years ago. I'm probably more tolerant than I was because I recognize everyone has a right to live their lives as they want. I can't impose my cultural values on others. My job is to ensure that the children end up in a safe, permanent home.
Two years ago my wife, Sue, and I took a Jeep ride across the United States. Yes, the country and its history impressed and thrilled me, but what struck me even more was the people -- the great diversity of people and their unbelievable helpfulness when given the chance. I realized we're all capable of being volunteers even if only in some small way. Think of what we could accomplish in this country if we all gave a bit of our time to give back to others some of the good we've received.
The National CASA Association has more than 950 local programs across the country. If you are interested in more information or possibly becoming a volunteer, please visit www.CASAforChildren.org. Donating your time to become a CASA may change your life and the life of an abused or neglected child.