October 17, 2018 at 1:56 pm PST | by Dan Hanley
The children our community most needs to help 

Dan Hanley is Chief Development Officer for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy CASA of LA)

The impact is mind-blowing to me.

Community volunteers.

Community volunteers advocating for a child in LA County’s child welfare system who has been abused and/or neglected. Our data at CASA of Los Angeles shows that the typical child in foster care had an average of four placements in a new home every year. Imagine what this does for the child, let alone for the trauma they experience with every move.

Now imagine one of these kids identifying as LGBTQ, which approximately one-in-five children in Los Angeles County foster care do. Imagine the increased level of trauma of having to come out every time they are moved to another home. Or imagine even just having to figure out whether or not it’s safe enough to have the discussion, not just with the new family, but the relatives, the school, the neighborhood.

Knowing you are different makes life tougher growing up. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to identify as LGBTQ as a young person and being moved around in the foster care system constantly. During my time here at CASA of Los Angeles I have met children who have lived in more than 20 places.

When our volunteers step in, the number of home placements drops to 1.7 in the year after their case closes – a huge difference from having four placements the year prior to having a CASA volunteer. Imagine that these same volunteers become a steady advocate for these kids, kids who are in a super tough situation that most of us can’t comprehend.

Many of the children we help have experienced abuse or neglect, have emotional or medical issues, or have educational needs.

The foster system also has a strong correlation with homelessness and trafficking. More than 25 percent of former foster children become homeless within two to four years of leaving the system, and up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. They are literally the some of most vulnerable among us

And imagine how a reliable volunteer who really cares can change a life.

Having come out in the ‘80s while serving in the U.S. Navy, I desperately tried to find community. I had been alone identifying as a gay male since middle school. And while still not out to most of the world, I found many organizations in Virginia and the D.C. area that were willing to help, be supportive, and just be there for me. Most of these places relied on volunteers, and in fact I sat across from many volunteers who were there to support me, and in some cases, remind me that I was safe there.

The youth and children we serve at CASA/LA also really just want to be safe and cared about. Our CASA volunteers go above and beyond to ensure the kids we serve don’t just think, they know there is someone who cares about them. So many take this for granted, and in the eyes of the children and young people we serve, someone who is “simply volunteering” has changed their lives. I have seen time and time again the difference a volunteer has made in the life of a child. It’s powerful to watch. Imagine how powerful it is to experience.

When I think about the 1,200 and more children and youth we will serve this year with advocacy from a CASA volunteer, I smile when I think those who identify as LGBTQ might have the chance to have a CASA volunteer who also identifies as LGBTQ. I have been able to see that and it’s wonderful. It’s also wonderful to see a volunteer who identifies as LGBTQ advocate for a child who may not identify as LGBTQ but who thrives with the support of a volunteer who knows what it feels like to feel scared and alone.

I know there are people reading this that might be thinking that they simply do not have the time, that this seems like way too much. And for some it probably is. Don’t let that stop you from volunteering in another way, a way that helps the world become the world you want it to be. Regardless of whether your passion is around children, animals, the environment or anything else really, you can make a difference by volunteering.

There is honestly something for everyone. Building a community takes effort and volunteering is one of the cornerstones to making sure our community stays together.

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