Dallas Mavericks digital content producer Shelbie Sumter always knew she wanted to serve at-risk children in some capacity.
Every time she heard about Dallas CASA — a local organization that uses volunteers to advocate for abused children — something would poke her spirit. This was especially true during the long days of the pandemic. Sumter simply couldn’t shake the feeling that thousands of kids were in need and hurting.
Her instincts were correct.
The latest statistics show that the coronavirus pandemic has been especially brutal to children at risk of abuse and neglect. More families staying at home and shut away from the world means more children were exposed to their abusers. The ability to choose virtual learning instead of going to school in person gave other abusers a chance to isolate and neglect their victims even more.
Once removed from their home, the children and teens are taken into the custody of Child Protective Services as they move through the family court system. Some live in foster care, others are placed in temporary living situations with other families and friends. The pandemic has also created a backlog of the courts system and children are often left in the dark without understanding what their future holds.
This is why court-appointed advocates play such an important role in the lives of thousands and thousands of children across North Texas. CASA advocates are often the one steady person to remain on a case and give the children someone they can trust.
Sumter knew these abused kids deserved a voice and an impartial advocate to journey with them through a very delicate time in their life. So in early 2021, even amid a busy NBA basketball season, she boldly stepped forward and joined Dallas CASA to start training as a court-appointed special advocate.
“I joined CASA because it had been on my heart for years to do something impactful for my community,” Sumter shared. “I couldn’t think of a better organization than CASA. Kids have their entire future ahead of them but it’s imperative that they have guidance and direction as they navigate that future.”
This is the same reason that I, too, became a court-appointed special advocate with Dallas CASA back in 2019. My decision to join the organization actually came as a feeling, just like Sumter.
I was covering a Dallas CASA event with the Dallas Mavs community relations team and sat at a table with Mavs’ CEO Cynt Marshall and her husband, Kenneth. Cynt has served as a Dallas CASA board member since 2014 and Kenneth has long been a special advocate.
It was during a one-on-one conversation with Kenneth that I noticed a familiar glow in his eyes. He spoke about the children in the same way my late mother did. She worked in the Dallas family courts system and was deeply passionate about helping abused children. Even as a young child, I always felt the burden she carried for the kids and it’s the same thing I felt with Kenneth and Cynt.
A short time later, I signed up and began attending classes at Dallas CASA.
As the days passed, my eyes started to open and I realized the call to volunteer with Dallas CASA was just that — a calling — and I attempted to view the world through the eyes of the children. The training with Dallas CASA changed me in countless ways and it also helped me heal from things in my own past. Most of all, it gave me a chance to understand just how many children and teens truly need us.
After you graduate, you then go to family court with your Dallas CASA class and the judge officially swears you in. I felt excited and a little bit nervous, but I soon came to understand just how important that training was because it prepared me for what came next.
Less than 24 hours after getting sworn in, I received my first Dallas CASA case.
That night I read over the case file and was in absolute shock to read what my children had endured at the hands of the person they trusted the most.
Time stood still.
I mourned for them. I prayed for them. Most of all — I vowed to stand in the gap for them.
I can’t share the specifics of my case, but what I can tell you is that I witnessed firsthand the importance of Dallas CASA. The courts couldn’t find a placement for all the children to stay in one home, so they ended up in different places. Can you imagine how scary this was for them? They had experienced abuse and now were separated from their own siblings; they were afraid and had no idea what would come next.
The advocates were the only steady people in their lives. When we went to court, the judge always wanted to hear from Dallas CASA advocates because we’d been with the children up close. We’d spent time in their foster homes and met with their teachers and knew the rollercoaster journey these precious children had experienced. They needed a voice and I can never adequately explain just how important this organization is to our community.
It’s not about us — it’s always about them, the children.
Sharing my story is important because I hope someone reading these words will also feel that same pull that Cynt, Kenneth, Shelbie and I first felt when we decided to join Dallas CASA.
Children need us right now. They need you.
This is the same reason Marshall joined the Dallas CASA board seven years ago. Cynt and Kenneth adopted four children who are now adults, but their commitment to giving back to underserved and abused children is a lifelong mission and purpose for the couple
“I got involved with Dallas CASA because I care about the children in our community,” Marshall said. “The children Dallas CASA serves are thrust into a bewildering world of well-intentioned strangers – people who mean good for them – where the only thing that is certain about their future is uncertainty. They are scared and they are confused. CASA volunteers help children navigate this very grown-up process. They serve as the eyes and ears of the court so that a safe and permanent home might be found.
“As my own life has shown me, good things can often come out of bad things. Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train. But with the help of just one person who cares about you, you can get through those bad things. Dallas CASA volunteers are truly everyday heroes, making good things happen for children one at a time.”
MAVS COMMITTED TO NATIONAL FOSTER CARE AWARENESS MONTH
This month marks an important time in our nation and community as we pause to recognize National Foster Care Month. The initiative is led and promoted by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services. At this time each year, the Bureau takes the opportunity to acknowledge foster parents, family members, volunteers, mentors, policymakers, child welfare professionals, and other members of the community who work tirelessly to help the more than 423,000 children in foster care across the country to find permanent homes.
While the initiative is national, the focus is local and the Mavericks have long been supporters of Dallas CASA. This year the organization received a COVID-19 grant from the Mavs Foundation.
In addition, the Mavs Foundation awarded CASA of Tarrant County with a $25,000 grant that will go towards their advocacy program to help them recruit, train, and supervise CASA volunteers and lower the waiting list of children in need.
“Your generosity gave families a CASA volunteer, keeps families safe, keeps families together, brings relief to so many hurting families, and made sure families didn’t have to face grief or separation alone,” Tarrant County officials shared with the Mavs earlier this month before the sixth annual Mavs Ball, an event that raised nearly $1 million to help organizations in need like CASA.
More advocates getting adequate training will translate into more at-risk kids getting the needed advocates.
This past year, the Mavericks have also supported Dallas CASA in other ways, including serving as a sponsor for the annual Cherish the Children luncheon.
Dallas CASA is also a key component of Mavs Take ACTION! — an initiative that launched one year ago. The Mavs pledge to listen, learn and unite our DFW communities to address racial inequities and disparities, promote social justice, and drive sustainable change. The organization pledged minimum $5M investment and 10,000 employee volunteer hours over the next three years in Mavs Take ACTION!
MTA includes a focus on six systems including child welfare and support of the foster care system.
The Mavs will also once again build a playhouse for the annual Parade of Playhouses that will be featured at North Park Mall in July.
For 26 years, Parade of Playhouses has been Dallas CASA’s signature awareness and fundraising event and has been enjoyed by millions of North Texans. The beloved community tradition raises necessary funds for Dallas CASA to fulfill its mission of helping abused and neglected children find a safe and permanent home. The 26th annual Dallas CASA Parade of Playhouses, presenting imaginative children’s playhouses, to benefit abused and neglected children, will take place July 9 -25 at NorthPark Center.
Dale Alexander serves as the Dallas Mavericks Vice President of Creative Marketing. He is designing this year’s Dallas Mavericks playhouse with fellow Mavs graphic designer, Peyton Cournoyer. He said the experience is always meaningful.
“I have two grade school boys myself and personally see the pull that screens and technology have on their generation,” Alexander said. “I am a huge believer in the power of imaginative and physical play, which is what these playhouses represent – kids doing kids stuff. Being able to create wonder and joy for kids on behalf of the Mavericks, and benefiting the work that CASA does in our community is truly a ‘win-win’ and labor of love.”
This same labor of love is why Sumter also wanted to represent the Dallas Mavericks as a Dallas CASA advocate.
“Children in foster care have been through things kids shouldn’t have to go through,” Sumter said. “They face a lot of challenges and changes. My goal is to be a consistent and supportive advocate that makes a positive difference in the life of a child. One thing I wish people knew – the ultimate goal is for kids to be reunified with their families. There are services available and programs in place to work toward that goal and ensure that each child has a safe home to return to.”
Love is an action, it’s a verb.
And it means we — the community — owe it to these children to step forward and answer the call to give the youth hope for a brighter future.
Abused children can’t wait.
If you would like to learn more about Dallas CASA or CASA of Tarrant County and take the steps to become a court-appointed special advocate, click the links. Or, feel free to reach out to me at Tamara.Jolee@DallasMavs.com for any questions and I can point you in the right direction.
You can also learn about the incredible work of the Mavs Take ACTION! iniative by clicking here.
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