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Pat and Don Merzlak, center, were recognized for their service as volunteers with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Northeast Tennessee at the September joint session of the Greene County Democratic Party and Democratic Women’s Club. At left is CASA Volunteer Coordinator Mikelle Ward. Women’s club Vice Chair Betsy Reed, hostess for the session, is at right

At the September joint session of the Greene County Democratic Party and the Greene County Democratic Women’s Club, Mikelle Ward, Court Appointed Special Advocates volunteer coordinator, provided information about the CASA Program.

CASA of Northeast Tennessee is a nonprofit, community-based, volunteer service organization that has worked with the juvenile courts of Johnson City, Washington, Greene and Unicoi Counties since 1986.

Its mission states, “We believe that every child has the right to thrive in a safe, stable and loving home.” Dedicated volunteers are appointed by the judge to advocate for the safety and well-being of children who have been removed from their home because of abuse and neglect, group members were told.

The goal is to provide a CASA volunteer to 100% of the abused and neglected children in the community. Ward shared that over 160 cases were assigned to volunteers in Greene County during their last fiscal year.

In 1977 a Seattle judge concerned over making decisions about abused and neglected children’s lives without sufficient information conceived the idea of using trained community volunteers to speak for the best interests of these children in court. With the success the Seattle program, judges across the country began utilizing citizen advocates.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress encouraged the expansion of CASA with passage of the Victims of Child Abuse Act. Now, more than 900 CASA program offices are in operation, with trained women and men serving as CASA volunteers.

Northeast Tennessee CASA began as an initiative of East Tennessee State University’s Sociology Department utilizing 1985 one-time grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Ward said.

In 2004, CASA of Northeast TN moved from the umbrella of ETSU and was established as a nonprofit entity. CASA of Northeast TN has made tremendous progress, increasing full-time staffing, opening a Greeneville satellite office, and growing volunteer advocates to more than 70, the group was told.

Betsy Reed, vice chair of the Greene County Democratic Women’s Club, was the hostess for the evening as the group celebrated Pat and Don Merzlak years of service as CASA Volunteers.

Those interested in volunteer opportunities or providing financial support to CASA of Northeast Tennessee may contact Ward at ward@casanetn.org or 423-461-3500.

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