The more than 200 candles illuminating the stage were the perfect symbol for the CASA Light of Hope Ceremony.
Held Thursday night at Lambert High School’s auditorium, the annual event recognizes individuals in the Forsyth community who have been points of light in the lives of local children.
CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, holds the ceremony every April in honor of national child abuse prevention month.
“We believe protecting and supporting children requires a community effort,” said Paula Gault, CASA board chairwoman. “We know it takes selfless, compassionate individuals who provide children a light of hope to ensure they become strong, successful adults and we feel honored to celebrate their work.”
Janet Walden, executive director of the organization, which trains community volunteers to serve as advocates for children involved in court cases due to abuse or neglect, said the 218 candles on the event’s stage represented children in Forsyth County that CASAs served in 2013.
“Two-hundred eighteen candles, 218 child victims,” she said. “By the time I sit down, more than 30 cases of child abuse will have been reported to the authorities nationwide. “By the end of the night, that number will swell to 9,000, and four of those children will die at the hands of their abuser, all in one single day.”
While the numbers might seem staggering, Walden reminded the audience that CASAs and other community members are there to help.“Our CASA volunteers fight for every child’s right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect, and to grow up in the embrace of a permanent family. “During 2013, more than 80 volunteers advocated for those 218 children. They gave more than 5,700 hours and they drove more than 56,000 miles all to meet the needs of the children they serve.”
Juvenile Court Judge Russell Jackson, who works closely with CASA, presented the 2013 CASA of the Year award to Molly Hevia. Jackson said Hevia was assigned cases of two young men who had entered the foster care system at the ages of 7 and 9.
Through “tough love to gain their trust,” Hevia was able to inspire the young men to better their lives by getting their GEDs, and the youngest is attending college.
Linda Cole and Beth Buursema, representatives of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Forsyth, were also presented the W. Everett Bennett Community Partner award. This award was established two years ago after the passing of Bennett, who had served as chairman of CASA’s board and as a volunteer in many community organizations.
Additionally, 12 community members not affiliated with CASA were presented Light of Hope awards.
Light of Hope award recipients are nominated by the community at-large for various efforts to help the lives of children.
Those receiving the recognition for 2013 were: Stacy Arder; Jason Breyo; Susie Brookshire; Nick Futrell; Tim and Teresa Ledbetter; Madelaine Malmfeldt; Jennifer See; Gladys Sasso-Alvarez; Alisa Steigerwalt; Annaliza Thomas and Melony Witt.
The award winners range from educators and coaches to sheriff’s deputies involved in juvenile court programs and teenagers who give back to younger students. Others served as foster and adoptive parents and as mentors.
“These are ordinary people doing extraordinary things for the children in our community,” Walden said. “These are shining examples of how we as a community can support children and youth in our midst.”