Voices for our Community’s Children: CASA Advocacy As a Working Professional

(This post is part of a series of posts about CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates.  For the rest of this series, click here: CASA-2019. – ABT)

By Jennifer Whitlark

Welcome to our 4th and final blog post in our CASA series!  To catch up on prior posts in this series, click here: CASA-2019.

Today, we have some Q&A with advocate Jennifer Whitlark, a working professional who makes time to contribute to her community even amidst her busy schedule.

How did you initially become interested in CASA?

I heard about CASA around town for several years before I got involved.  I knew it was a great organization and I waited until I had some more space in my work life in order to join the organization. 

What made you decide to get involved? 

I work as a school administrator in Waco but I deal mainly with academics in my work and I was really interested in being more involved with the family side of things with the students.  Being a CASA allowed me to experience this piece in a new way.  Also, given the population I work with in my job, I knew the needs of children in hard situations and this gave me an avenue to work with them and try and make a difference.  I also just feel called to love children and care for them.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience with CASA training and how it prepared you for your advocacy?

The training was a great time to learn the law as well as the good and hard points of being a CASA.  It was helpful to hear stories of others’ experiences and also hear about all of the supports in place for advocates. 

How does your CASA Supervisor support you in your advocacy?  Has that coaching relationship been valuable to you?

My CASA supervisor has been a great sounding board for me.  He has answered my questions, given my advice, and encouraged me.  It has been a very beneficial relationship and his help has been invaluable.   

How do you balance CASA and working full time?

I have to work to intentionally balance CASA responsibilities with my job.  I have to carve out time to see my CASA child, write reports, and make phone calls.  There are seasons when this is harder than others but it has been fine once I found ways to make this happen.

What is a highlight from your CASA advocacy so far when you felt like you made an impact? 

At the beginning of my first case, the mom was very standoffish.  She didn’t know me and didn’t trust me.  She was shy, self-conscious, and defensive.  I had to work to slowly break down the wall she had built around herself.  Fast forward to 1.5 years later she was truly a different person.  At her last court hearing her case was finally dismissed and she got her kids back.  The whole courtroom clapped and cheered and she cried.  She gave me a big hug and we celebrated.  I drove her home from court that day and she told me how much she had grown and how much she had learned.  She said she never wished this upon anyone but she explained how much more confident she felt as a mom and how this process has helped her in life.  It was such a great conversation and as I reflected on how much she had truly grown from when I met her it was a confirmation that CASAs can make a difference in lives.


To learn more about CASA of McLennan County and the need for more advocates, visit our website at www.casaforeverychild.org or find us on social media @casamclennan. 

If you have questions or are ready to begin advocating for children in foster care, email our CASA Recruiter, Kate Gilbert, at recruiter@casaforeverychild.org.


Jennifer with her husband, Jason, and daughter, Hannah

Jennifer has called Waco home for 20 years.  She is originally from California but came to Waco to attend Baylor and never left.  She has worked at Rapoport Academy since 2003, first as a 4th grade teacher for six years, then she stepped into administration as the Dean of Academics over the Elementary Campuses.  Her husband, Jason, teaches at Baylor University and they have a 12-year-old daughter, Hannah.  In her free time, when she’s not working or advocating for her CASA kids, Jennifer likes to read and work on cross stitching.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

Voices for our Community’s Children: CASA Advocacy As A Retired Community Member

By Mike Mellina

(This post is part of a series of posts about CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates.  For the rest of this series, click here: CASA-2019. – ABT)

Welcome to the third post in our CASA blog series, which provides a close up look at our advocacy from a CASA volunteer’s perspective.  

Today, we have the pleasure of hearing from a tenured CASA volunteer, Mike Mellina, who includes CASA in his various volunteer activities as he seeks to give back to his Waco community.

Mike has been a Court Appointed Special Advocate for six years and is currently appointed to two cases simultaneously, which are the third and fourth cases he has had.  Though most advocates are assigned to just one case at a time, Mike is a rock star who has taken on two. Each of his cases have happened to only have one child per case, so he has been an advocate for four children so far.

Before he became an advocate, Mike had no knowledge of CASA, but he saw a billboard or an ad in passing.  Then shortly after, he headed to his church, First United Methodist Church Waco, and found a little CASA bookmark clipped to his church name tag with information about becoming a CASA volunteer.   He decided to call and learn more, then decided to give it a shot and, as Mike says, “it snowballed from there.”

Mike has been retired for almost nine years and enjoys spending his time giving back to our community.  He says volunteering is a good way to fill his time and the fact that he did have time to give helped him take the leap and get involved with CASA. 

As mentioned above, Mike didn’t know much about CASA when he jumped in.  He went through the training process along with a small group of other advocates, and heard from different CASA staff as well as current advocates during the training, which provided him a good view of the advocacy work involved.  The training helped him realize this is not your average volunteer opportunity and that there is a lot involved with advocating for children in foster care.   He was able to form a realistic view of what his volunteer role would look like.  “All the CASA staff have been super supportive”, Mike said of his time as a volunteer.  “I’ve never felt like I’ve been on my own.”  He has been involved beyond his casework, such as with continuing education that CASA provides to advocates, and really enjoys helping with public awareness efforts or events that CASA engages in, like a CASA booth at Waco Wonderland or the annual Crawfish for CASA fundraiser event.  “I’m willing to pitch in however I’m needed,” Mike said with a smile.

Mike has a bit of advice for anyone considering becoming a CASA.  “Be patient and give yourself time, don’t make quick judgments.  I like defined goals and no ambiguity and CASA is a lot of ambiguity.  If you’re volunteering to pick up trash, you pick it up and put it in the bag.  With CASA, there are so many variables.  I had no idea how any of this foster care stuff works, and it takes a while to learn all that. Don’t be hard on yourself.  The training is good. Rely on the staff support.”  He added that even with the learning curve, it is a very doable and rewarding volunteer experience.

When asked what he has enjoyed most about his time as a CASA volunteer, Mike said “Seeing positive results for children.  Seeing a kid that you may have had doubts about their chances in life and seeing, to your surprise, the outcome turned out better than you thought it could’ve been for them when you first met them and met their situation.  If nobody jumps in, then maybe nothing positive would have happened.”

Mike saw this first hand with one of his CASA cases.  When he first met the child involved in the case and learned the circumstances, he thought “this kid doesn’t have a chance”.  But in the end, in part because of Mike’s advocacy, he was reunited with family in a safe environment.  After the case had closed, Mike reconnected with him and they have kept in contact since, though without any CASA involvement.  The child was 14 when the case began and is now about to turn 20, has a great job, is about to get his own apartment.   Mike sees him every week and helped him complete his GED. Not only is he doing great personally, but he also chooses to give back to the community and serve in a volunteer role, much like the example Mike has set for him, and he hopes to be able to share his story with other youth in foster care. 


To learn more about CASA of McLennan County and the need for more advocates, visit our website at www.casaforeverychild.org or find us on social media @casamclennan. 

If you have questions or are ready to begin advocating for children in foster care, email our CASA Recruiter, Kate Gilbert, at recruiter@casaforeverychild.org.


Mike Mellina is a retired Wacoan who built his entire career of 38 years at Southwestern Bell, which was purchased by AT&T.  He has lived almost his whole life in Texas, except for 2 months as a baby in California.  Mike began his career in Houston but transferred his job and moved to Waco in 1983, to be closer to his Dad who operated a ranch in nearby Groesbeck.  Mike and his wife, Kate, raised their three kids here, who are now all grown.  Mike and Kate have seven grandkids and another one on the way.   Aside from his advocacy with CASA, Mike is highly involved in his church, First United Methodist Church Waco. He also gives back to our community as a Reading Buddy in Waco ISD schools and is part of the youth prison ministry out of FUMC.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

Voices for our Community’s Children: Guidance & Support for CASA Volunteers

(This post is part of a series of posts about CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates.  For the rest of this series, click here: CASA-2019. – ABT)

By Chelsea Oliver, LMSW

When members of our community commit to volunteer with CASA of McLennan County as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, they are matched with a full time CASA staff member, their CASA Supervisor.  Our CASA Supervisors are child welfare experts whose job is to support, coach and guide the CASA volunteers in their advocacy for children. 

Read on for some Q&A with one of our CASA Supervisors, Chelsea Oliver.

What brought you to the CASA team?

My degree is in social work with a children and families concentration, so I have always had a heart for serving vulnerable populations. What drew me to CASA specifically is the unique role that we are able to play as advocates for abused and neglected children. The opportunity to truly make an impact in their lives and have a rich connection with them throughout their journeys in foster care is a responsibility and a privilege I do not take lightly. It is an honor to work alongside our CASA volunteers and the professionals in this realm while building personal connections with these children in working towards their best interests to find a safe, loving, and permanent home.

Describe your role as CASA Supervisor. How do you guide and coach advocates in their casework? 

Photo with CASA advocate, Dianna Palich, at CASA’s new Forever Home facility which is under renovation, photo used with permission from Dianna.

As a CASA Supervisor, I am here to be a guide to our advocates through the CPS process. I help them navigate through their advocacy and case. What this looks like on a routine basis is explaining the processes involved, answering any questions they have, and helping them in speaking with professionals in the field. I also join them on visits with the children or meetings with other professionals and work alongside them as they write their reports to the court. I provide examples and help gather information as needed, as well as provide revisions where needed before submission. We meet monthly to discuss the case. provide updates and make a task list for the next month as well.

What are some ways you support and empower your advocates beyond the technical coaching and supervision?

One of my favorite things to do is to send thank you cards to our advocates. I love being able to support them on a personal level. I also routinely send birthday cards and I try to send out regular e-mails updating them on what is going on within CASA at the moment. I try to really get to know my advocates – Who are they? What do they enjoy and what is important to them? What is going on in their lives? Building up some personal camaraderie can be a good foundation for teamwork.

What are some characteristics you look for in a quality advocate?

The most important thing to building a supportive relationship is communication. I always step in to help my advocates where they need me, and communication is key to that process. Also, it is important to be able to see outside of our own lenses in terms of different cultures and family dynamics. Volunteers who understand and value each child’s individuality and their different family backgrounds make for outstanding advocates who really bond with and empower the children and families we work with.


To learn more about CASA of McLennan County and the need for more advocates, visit our website at www.casaforeverychild.org or find us on social media @casamclennan. 

If you have questions or are ready to begin advocating for children in foster care, email our CASA Recruiter, Kate Gilbert, at recruiter@casaforeverychild.org.

Stay tuned for further weekly installments of our CASA story, with upcoming posts from two CASA advocates!


Chelsea Oliver, CASA Supervisor, CASA of McLennan County, is originally from Lorena and currently lives in McGregor with her husband and two kids.  She is a Licensed Master Social Worker and has a Bachelor of Social Work degree from Tarleton University and a Master of Social Work degree from University of Texas at Arlington.   Chelsea has past experience with elderly and medical social work and has enjoyed returning to her passion of working with children and families in her work at CASA. 

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

Voices For Our Community’s Children: Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA)

By Anna Futral

(This post is part of a series of posts about CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates.  For the rest of this series, click here: CASA-2019. – ABT)

I would imagine that many of you reading this grew up in a pretty good home.  I grew up on 30 acres outside Fredericksburg TX with four (mostly) fabulous siblings and two parents who worked hard to care for us, keep us safe and raise us into mature adults.  I had an amazing childhood.

But there are many children in our community right here who barely get a childhood at all, much less a safe and happy one.   Children like 9 year old Amanda who, after trying to hide her bruises for months, through no fault of her own, finds herself in the backseat of a stranger’s car, the few belongings she was allowed to grab crammed in a trash bag beside her, being driven to the home of more strangers, foster parents, where everything is new and different.  At her young age, life as she knew it has been turned upside down and she has no idea what the future holds.

This is the point when CASA can enter the scene, a point of fear, loss, confusion and unknown.  When a child is removed from their home by CPS due to abuse or neglect, and sent to live with relatives or foster parents, a Court Appointed Special Advocate can become a strong presence in the child’s life.  The CASA works alongside other professionals to make sure that child’s needs are met while they are in foster care, to learn their specific case situation and make recommendations to the judge across the case regarding the safety, permanency and best interest of that child. 

There are almost 700 children in foster care in McLennan County, but only about 150 of them have a CASA volunteer.  We are in need of many more advocates to step up and be a voice for children in our community.

A Court Appointed Special Advocate can come from all walks of life and does not need to have prior experience with the child welfare system or child development.  Our advocate team includes grad students, working professionals, stay at home parents and retired individuals.  While some come from a background of personal or professional experience with child welfare, most are regular community individuals who just want to directly affect the life of a child for the better.

We are looking for caring, committed adults who meet the following criteria:

  • At least 21 years of age
  • Pass screening, background check and training requirements
  • Able to make a one-year minimum time commitment to a case (about 10-15 hours per month)
  • Able to keep information confidential and work within established program guidelines

Our agency provides flexible, quality training to prepare our volunteers for their advocacy work and then matches each new advocate with a full time CASA staff member, a CASA Supervisor, to guide and coach them in their volunteer work.  This volunteer to Supervisor relationship is where the rubber meets the road for our quality advocacy, as the Supervisor provides knowledge and support while empowering the volunteer to be a strong voice for their appointed CASA child.  Our volunteers are highly valued members of our CASA team and we do all we can as a staff to set them up for a meaningful volunteer experience.

To learn more about CASA of McLennan County and the need for more advocates, visit our website at www.casaforeverychild.org or find us on social media @casamclennan. 

If you have questions or are ready to begin advocating for children in foster care, email our CASA Recruiter, Kate Gilbert, at recruiter@casaforeverychild.org.

Stay tuned for further weekly installments of our CASA story, with upcoming posts from a CASA Supervisor and two advocates!


Anna Futral is Executive Director, CASA of McLennan County. Though born and raised in Fredericksburg, Anna has called Waco home for fifteen years.  She is a graduate of Baylor University, where she received her Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting and a Master of Taxation.  She and her husband, Trent adopted their three children in 2016 after over two years of caring for them and loving them as a foster care placement.  When she’s not busy leading CASA forward or chasing her kids Anna enjoys reading, spending time with good people and working with her husband on their 119-year-old house in the heart of Waco.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.