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CASA of Forsyth honors community members for service, dedication to children at annual event
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Bettina Hammond, right, receives the W.E. Bennett Community Partner Award at the 2022 Light of Hope event for her service to Forsyth County's children and families. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Heidi Snarey stood on the stage at Browns Bridge Church on Thursday, April 21, looking at residents, volunteers and community leaders who were holding some of the 176 candles scattered throughout the room.

Snarey, the executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, of Forsyth County, told the crowd that each of the candles they held represented a child in the community who has suffered abuse or neglect at the hands of a caregiver.

“By the time I sit down, more than 30 cases of abuse will have been reported to authorities nationwide,” Snarey said. “By the end of the night, that number will be well past 9,000, and four of those children will die at the hand of their abuser — all in a single day.”

CASA is a network of volunteers in the community who help advocate for and support children facing abuse, neglect or abandonment through a variety of different methods.

But Snarey said CASA would not be able to make a difference in children’s lives without the help of the more than 100 volunteers who, over the past year, have donated more than 5,000 hours of time and have driven more than 27,000 miles to meet the needs of the kids they serve.

The crowd was gathered Thursday night for CASA’s annual Light of Hope event to help celebrate and recognize nine members of the community who Snarey said “might consider themselves as just ordinary people, but really they do extraordinary things as they nurture and strengthen the children whom they work with.

“But, most importantly, they often bring hope to a child in need,” she continued.

After a speech by Horizon Christian Academy student Olivia Smith and a performance by the East Forsyth Community Orchestra, Jennifer Elwood, with the CASA of Forsyth County Board of Directors, presented the state volunteer of the year.

Each year, Georgia CASA chooses an outstanding volunteer from programs across the state to recognize. Elwood announced that the recognition this year was given to CASA of Forsyth County’s own Deb McKeever for her work in the community and devotion to the program.

McKeever was recognized on stage before Elwood announced the 2022 Light of Hope honorees:

●     Anne Moncus was honored for her work providing families with food through Backpacks of Love, a nonprofit organization in Forsyth and Fulton counties that delivers backpacks full of food to schools and Jesse’s House for children and organizations in need. Moncus previously served in a classroom for 27 years and now works as the children’s ministry coordinator at Cumming First United Methodist Church.

●     Kim Pluhar was honored for her work with Forsyth County Schools, serving as the liaison for the Homeless Education Program. Not only does she help students find stable housing in the county, but she has helped create a tutoring program to ensure students in tough situations can keep up with their education. Pluhar wanted to emphasize to the community that the number of homeless children in the county has risen significantly over the last several years.

●     Troy Embrey was honored for his time volunteering at schools in the county. He has served on Watch DOGS Dads, a program within the school system inviting fathers in the community to bring more positive male influences into the schools while increasing security, and he mentors children who need extra guidance and help.

●     Sgt. Jeffery Roe and his pup partner Booberry were both honored for their work with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office and Forsyth County Schools. Roe helped to organize Operation Just Cause, which sought to find and arrest offenders for various crimes against children in the county. He also talks with kids in the county about the dangers of social media, and Booberry helps him to interview children who have been abused.

●     Joni Smith, executive director of The Place of Forsyth, was honored for her continuous support to children and families in the community. The Place is a pantry and nonprofit, providing programs and events such as Holiday House, which serves to provide help to families while giving them the freedom of choice.

●     Nancy Simms was honored for her work collecting items such as shoes, clothing, furniture and more for Forsyth County Schools' families and students. She continues to work closely with the district and local nonprofits to provide consistent help and resources to kids.

●     Melissa Loggins, the owner of Music Authority on Merchants Square in Cumming, was honored for her ability to incorporate life lessons for kids and students into their musical talents and performances. While teaching kids how to play instruments, she holds them to a high standard while also teaching them how to act, communicate with others and work with trade professionals.

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Deb McKeever, middle, was chosen at Georgia CASA's Volunteer of the Year for 2022 for her service with CASA in Forsyth County. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Later in the evening, Former CASA Board of Directors Chairwoman Judi Jenkins presented a special award to the community and CASA, the W.E. Bennett Community Partner Award, to Bettina Hammond.

Jenkins said Hammond has served the community in a variety of ways starting when she first came to Forsyth County in 1998. She not only served as board chair at United Way of Forsyth County for several years, but she also served on CASA’s board from 2000 to 2010.

Aside from these boards, she has also volunteered at Cumming Elementary School and Forsyth County Boys and Girls Club where she has worked to help kids and families for many years.

More recently, she started serving on the board of directors for Keystone Village, which is working to build a residential community in Forsyth County to serve intellectually and developmentally disabled adults.

She also donated a building at Hammonds Crossing to CASA of Forsyth County after her husband died in 2019, honoring him by giving the house to the community and naming it the Allen Hammond Heritage Building.

CASA congratulated each of the volunteers and community members recognized at the night’s event. Closing out the evening, Jenkins asked that the crowd take a candle home with them to remind them of the amazing “lights of hope” that work in the community each day to guide and support children in Forsyth.

Sharon Walker, with CASA of Forsyth County’s board of directors, thanked West Forsyth and South Forsyth high schools’ culinary program students for providing and serving dessert at the event. She also recognized Bagwell Insurance Group and Northside Hospital Forsyth for their support of CASA.

For those interested in donating to CASA of Forsyth County, visit www.forsythcountycasa.org.

“The Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, model provides unparalleled support for children in foster care,” Walker said. “You can help provide children with safety and stability. By donating to CASA, you help us recruit, train and support volunteers who advocate for the best interests of our children and ensure that their needs are being met.”

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Judi Jenkins, former CASA of Forsyth Board of Directors chair, speaks to the crowd at the 2022 Light of Hope event, presenting the W.E. Bennett Community Partner Award. - photo by Sabrina Kerns