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A glimmer of light in darkness

May 1, 2019

MICHIGAN CITY – Unwrapping Christmas gifts and opening birthday cards. Learning to count to three. Playing with shaving cream sprayed across a large table, making a massive mess in the process.

For most children, these types of mundane, everyday experiences are part and parcel of being a kid.

For those in the child welfare system – who are continually moving from home to home, separated from parents trapped in a destructive cycle of drug addiction – what are ordinary moments for most children are amazing memories for them.

There to create and share in these memories are volunteers with the La Porte County Court Appointed Youth Advocate and Court Appointed Special Advocate programs – regular citizens who have decided to step up and be a voice for some of society’s most vulnerable.

Through their actions, these volunteers help neglected and abused children learn to trust, to bond, to love, La Porte County Juvenile Magistrate W. Jonathan Forker told to a recent gathering of CAYA and CASA volunteers.

“What you gave to them was hope, where maybe before all they saw was despair,” Forker said. “You gave them a glimmer of light that they reach out to and gave them a goal that they can reach toward … you light a flame in them that becomes a raging inferno.”

Forker and others in the community praised the efforts of these selfless individuals during Family Advocates’ 2019 Volunteer Appreciation Banquet, held Friday evening at the Potawatomi Country Club in Michigan City.

The organization’s staff, board members and other supporters recognized the work of the nearly 50 CASA and approximately 25 CAYA volunteers that evening. Family Advocates, which oversees the local CASA and CAYA programs, also honored La Porte’s Kelli Tanger as its 2019 CASA Volunteer of the Year and state Sen. Mike Bohacek as its 2019 CAYA Volunteer of the Year.

As the theme of the event was “The Gift of Time Changes Lives,” Family Advocates’ Karen Biernacki — speaking next to a decorative clock — spoke of how precious time is for children living in foster care, who spend years of their life separated from parents. Time can be a valuable commodity for teenagers sent to live in a residential treatment program for months on end as well, separated from their friends, schools and homes, she said.

For the CASAs who work with children living in foster care or the CAYAs helping teens involved in the juvenile justice system, time is a resource they give up to improve the lives of La Porte County’s at-risk youth.

“They’re going to give them hope,” Biernacki said. “They’re going to be their voice. They’re going to advocate for them. And they’re going to change their lives.”

Bohacek is one such volunteer, devoting a chunk of his packed schedule to help a troubled young man turn his life around, according to La Porte County CAYA Program Director Brenda Stellema, who presented the Michiana Shores resident with the Volunteer of the Year award.

Under Bohacek’s mentorship, the teen is working through past traumas and looking to become a welder, Stellema said.

During his acceptance speech, Bohacek recalled an exchange he had after the young man said he “wasn’t that important” after asking the senator to send him DVDs based off books the senator had given him to read. Bohacek responded that he thought the young man was important, and should believe in himself.

“It was a hard ride back to Indianapolis after I visited him because I felt like I was making a bit of change in this kid’s life,” he said. “If this program can make a kid feel important, then it’s all for the better.”

Family Advocates recognized Tanger, a former educator who began volunteering with CASA in 2017, for taking on a severe case involving three siblings, whose mother passed away last Mother’s Day, said La Porte County CASA Director April Greetham.

Tanger has served as “a rock” for the children during a turbulent time in their lives, being there as they transitioned to foster and adoptive homes, Greetham said.

After accepting the Volunteer of the Year award, Tanger said she couldn’t help but wonder how the children’s lives would be different if their mother had access to a CASA or CAYA when she was growing up, as the service can dramatically change lives.

“Anyone that is in support of this program, you’re making a difference,” she said. “We all should be committed to making a difference in our community. These kids, they don’t have a voice. We all need to be invested in their future and in their lives. They so deserve it.”

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