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April 9, 2013 > Love is a four letter word

Love is a four letter word

By William Marshak

Why can't they be like we were...
Perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?

The perennial question posed in the song "Kids" sung in the musical "Bye Bye Birdie" reverberates through each generation. A plaintive cry from parents and caregivers reflects the angst of both adults and kids during childhood and adolescence. Surviving the trials and tribulations of childhood is no easy task; younger generations rely on parents, relatives, friends, teachers and a myriad of other role models for support and guidance. In the imperfect theatre of life, a strong network of assistance is a critical element that can channel youthful energy toward a strong, competent and secure future.

From an adult perspective, years of trial and error help individuals confront issues and challenges. Children and teenagers have less opportunity to collect this knowledge and benefit from the influence of those who have successfully navigated the pitfalls of growing up. When circumstances arise that interfere with this process, confusion can lead to anxiety, anger and insecurity. Without a network of support, children and adolescents are vulnerable and can be lost, abandoned to a web of bureaucratic and unintentional societal neglect. Although well-intentioned organizations and public agencies are available, personal attention suffers and lives are adversely affected.

If childhood nurture is absent, love and care become four-letter words with little meaning or differentiation from other words with much different and negative implications. To aid families with severe problems and/or broken relationships, a system has developed to "foster" kids who need an additional assistance from the community. When safety is uncertain, children are removed by authorities, sometimes even by family - temporarily or permanently - from their homes. For these children and adolescents, daily life is uncertain and stability absent. They live with strangers in unfamiliar surroundings, relocating to new "homes" without any sense of control. Trust in others and faith in future relief are intangible, simply concepts outside reality.

In this bewildering situation, there are people who try to help make sense of what is happening and offer a bit of stability. Regular visits with children who are in the midst of turmoil, sometimes just as a presence, creates an emotional port in the storm of their lives. Although many organizations support youth, a group of special people share their personal time with these kids, developing lasting relationships that often prove to be essential for the health and well-being of those in foster care. Child Advocates serve as a voice for those who may not be able to speak coherently for themselves. Acting as court-appointed companions, they have the ability to interact with teachers, social workers and foster parents; they can accompany children in court as a friend and mentor.

As part of a national network of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Child Advocates of Silicon Valley, located in Milpitas, draws many volunteers from the greater Tri-City area. These people come from many walks of life but have one thing in common, a commitment to help kids embroiled in a tempest of court orders and strangers. Whether in need of companionship, empathy, a voice of reason and compassion or tangible assistance with clothing, supplies or a comforting teddy bear, Child Advocates of Silicon Valley is ready to help.

Communication Manager Jerry Fontanares says that the group not only recruits and trains volunteers - a one-year commitment following a screening process - but maintains an in-house "store" when alternate resources for children are unavailable. He recalls an instance on a rainy day when a volunteer and child arrived without an appointment; the child had no jacket. Fontanares' response was to point to the store area and tell them to "go shopping." He adds, that typically Advocates call and say, "We need hygiene products, a shirt for graduation, etc... we just accommodate them as best we can."

Volunteer training doesn't stop with initial preparation. Continuing education is important to Child Advocates, so classes and discussion groups are held regularly to help with problems that arise including cultural issues. Almost all volunteers who complete initial training remain with the program. For some, lifestyle or job changes alter their ability to move forward. "The program is not for everyone; this is a big commitment," says Fontanares.

Executive Director Karen Scussel, a high tech employee for 26 years, became interested in advocacy when one of her managers told her she was taking a leave of absence to work with a "really interesting program where you work with the courts and foster care." Although the concept was attractive, at the time Scussel traveled extensively and could not participate. Eventually, schedule changes allowed her to enter the program and by the year 2000, she completed Child Advocate training. "My first experience was phenomenal," says Scussel. When the 13-year-old she worked with was eventually reunited with her out-of-state biological father, Scussel asked if her teen companion thought she should continue working in the program and was told, "Yes, you need a teen to keep you in line!"

Following several more experiences as an advocate with other teenage girls, Scussel left the high tech industry in 2006 and was asked to join the Child Advocates of Silicon Valley Board of Directors. When the Board was searching for a Training Director, Scussel was asked to help until a suitable replacement could be found. Relieved of that position, she was subsequently asked to become an interim Program Director. Two and a half years later, Scussel wondered about the definition of "temporary." Finally the Program Director slot was filled; Scussel continued to help out in the office. Recently, the Executive Director left to work with another nonprofit agency and Karen was a natural selection to temporarily fill that role. After a few months, she heeded her husband's advice to "just do it" and advised the Board that, if they were in agreement, she would accept the position as permanent Executive Director.

Child Advocates of Silicon Valley relies on funding from a variety of sources. Only about 18 percent of their income comes from government sources - county, state, federal. "We rely heavily on individual donations," says Scussel. Foundations and corporations help out too. "We host two [fundraising] events every year, a Spring Event scheduled for April 28, 2013 is a food and wine paring; and a golf tournament. Community organizations such as Rotary have helped as well.

To help coordinate efforts of all Child Advocate organizations, a national organization links state and regional groups; a nine-county San Francisco Bay Area group meets quarterly to collaborate. Scussel says, "The structure of our county organizations is slightly different depending upon the court system." Pairing an Advocate and child is a careful process of both CASA and the Advocate including case reviews, age range and interests. Scussel says, "We try to match a child with an Advocate that can support their interests."

She adds that volunteer participation is based on "the reality of where people live and work" so sometimes people who live or work in one county may volunteer in another. When a child's case originates in one county and moves to another county within a reasonable distance, Scussel says, "We follow them." As an example she says if a case begins in San Jose and placement takes the child to Fremont, the same advocate will continue to visit. "Most Advocates, once they have developed a relationship with a child, realize how important that is and stay with them." She notes that if things change in the child's life - home, school, social worker, friends, etc. - "We become the consistent presence." Advocates must be at least 21 years of age but range from young adult to senior citizen, working or retired, single or family members. The primary concern is to make sure that the Advocate's lifestyle is compatible with the Child Advocate program.

Veronica Estall, 24-year Fremont Resident, Advocate volunteer since 2011 says, "I have two boys and all through their lives, I have advocated for them with teachers, medical doctors, etc... I was born to advocate. Three or four years ago, an employee at my work was talking about child advocacy and, of course, she had my full attention." As her own family matured, she gravitated toward the Child Advocacy program and finished her training in March 2011. "I read many files and was drawn to a 4-year-old boy who I thought I could help educationally." Told that after reading through case files, she would know which child was right for her, Veronica says, "I read many files and was pulled to this child and it turned out the way I hoped it would and much, much more!"

Her first meeting "was scary at first because I didn't know how he would respond to me. We went to the park - what kid doesn't like a park - and wondered whether I should be strict or just go with my heart. I didn't have to rehearse, everything came naturally." She says that a bond developed right then and there. We have since shared different experiences together, as simple as going to Whole Foods and eating at a buffet, choosing vegetables and fruits, picnic lunches and all sorts of things we take for granted. He wanted to see what was in the glove compartment of the car and we explored that together. We didn't have to be in a rush to do things. Within the first three months he was comfortable with me and the boundaries I set. Even if he has an outburst of emotion, he feels safe with me; I don't judge him." Veronica describes her experience as "fulfilling and enriching" and adds, "I want to give back, to my community; every child deserves to have a safe, loving and consistent environment in their life no matter who they are. I can do that and will continue to do that. I have found my niche." She concludes that the "common denominator" of volunteers who will enjoy the experience is "an open heart, understanding that every situation is different and be known as a neutral and safe place. If you want to give back, the rest will just come naturally." Veronica says that so many bad things can happen in life and this is so rewarding that people can give back. These children deserve consistency, loving and support."

Another Advocate, Milpitas resident Vamsey Palagummi, became interested in the program during a law school internship at Dependency Court. One day, when in court, a youth appeared before the judge. He was represented by an attorney and social worker but neither of them knew the youth well. Unaware of the Child Advocate program, he watched as a Child Advocate stood up and provided "context and an understanding of why this youth was in a bit of trouble; [The Advocate] really knew the youth and was there to step up and support him through the process." The judge was very appreciative and thanked the Advocate for the information. Palagummi decided to get involved. "I looked it up online, went to the training and was hooked!"

During Child Advocate training, Palagummi thought about working with pre-teen boys, but changed his mind when a judge spoke to the group, emphasizing the critical need for Advocates of teens. The judge noted, "Those that will not reunify with their parents and soon phase out of the system, need Advocates and mentors for more than six months or a year." Palagummi chose to work with a teenager and says, "Although it was scary at first, it was probably the best decision I could have made. I get to see all the transformative changes he has made." Training provides support and guidance, but at the first meeting between Palagummi and the teen, he says, "We just kind of hit it off!" Although the bonding process was gradual, Palagummi knew, "We are going to be life-long friends." He adds that he was exhilarated after the first meeting and thought, "I am so glad I chose this."

As a steady presence through some troubled times, the teen understood that Palagummi really cared about him. That helped him "buy into the commitment of his Advocate." From there, says Palagummi, "We accomplished great things together: he got his driver's license, enrolled in school and understood that I would be a consistent presence in his life. He had social workers in and out of his life, a variety of attorneys and foster homes; the question was if I was really going to be there for him. Of course, he tested me a bit, but I received training to help me with that process. Just being a consistent presence means a lot."

Part of Palagummi's role as an Advocate of a teen is to help build life skills but to also just "hang out, see a movie, restaurants, museums, family events, watch sports, talk; what you would do with a friend. He has become part of the family." Vamsey says that his relationship with the teen's foster parents was "dicey" at first, but "I was genuine and open," working with them to find solutions to problems.

"In the beginning, I was the structure for this teen, but now I am able to sit back and listen to him report all the good things he does. He is able to seek out services and find the resources necessary to get to where he needs to go." For Palagummi, after two years in the Advocate program, he says, "I love it, this is where its at!" He believes many others can do this too, but two key factors are necessary for success: consistency and genuineness. "If you are real to who you are and consistent with that, you can build strong relationships."

Child Advocates of Silicon Valley is helping children and teens reach their potential through compassionate action. This is an immediate and critical component leading to a fruitful life for many. As Conrad Birdie sings in Bye, Bye, Birdie,

"Gotta move, cause time is a-wastin',
There's such a lot of livin' to do!"

For more information about Child Advocates, contact:
Child Advocates of Silicon Valley
509 Valley Way, Milpitas
(408) 416-0400; (800) 342-7480

Web References: (Santa Clara County) (Alameda County) (National)

Celebrate Child Advocates' twenty-seven years of service to abused and neglected children and enjoy small plate offerings by more than a dozen of Silicon Valley's star chefs paired with favorite wine. Rising Star Chef Ross Hanson of Restaurant James Randall in Los Gatos headlines the evening's culinary creations. Join Ross and over 300 guests for a rare dining event. Unique silent and live auction items complete the evening. The event is on Sunday, April 28, 2013, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Ticket prices are $150 per person. For more information contact Debbie Lee at (408) 573-5615 or visit

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