Dustin Clements, children’s pastor at First Assembly of God, and Sandra Samuel, Court Appointed Special Advocate supervisor, decorate the Christmas tree at the CASA office at 732 Main St. He said this is his way of giving back to the kids of CASA. The tree’s theme is an old-fashioned country Christmas.  Michelle Bates/Press-Herald
Dustin Clements, children’s pastor at First Assembly of God, and Sandra Samuel, Court Appointed Special Advocate supervisor, decorate the Christmas tree at the CASA office at 732 Main St. He said this is his way of giving back to the kids of CASA. The tree’s theme is an old-fashioned country Christmas. Michelle Bates/Press-Herald

Christmas is a special time of year.

It is a time for families to gather, friends to exchange gifts, a time to celebrate Christmas. When many think about Christmas, they think about children – children in need.

A special program is now collecting toys, clothes, shoes and other items for children in the foster care system that are under the care of a Court Appointed Special Advocate. Sandra Samuel, Webster CASA supervisor, said donations are already coming in to help roughly 36 children whose cases originated in Webster Parish.

“We supply every CASA child’s wish list,” she said. “We send out a letter at the beginning of October to all the foster homes and ask for a list of the child’s or children’s clothes sizes, shoe sizes, things they would enjoy for Christmas and a dream gift. We try to get every single thing on that list.”

While everyone loves to shop for the little children, Samuel said teenagers are the most in need this Christmas. Currently, CASA is serving several 15-year-old boys, a 16-year-old boy, two 17-year-old girls and two 15-year-old girls.

Some of the items CASA seeks include LEAP pads, tablets, riding toys like bicycles, toy kitchen stuff for the little girls, superhero action figures for little boys and, most popular, Disney’s “Frozen” items. Clothes, shoes and books are also welcome as gifts.

Donors may wrap the gifts, but it is important the gift is identified so Samuel can check it off her list. All the gifts will be wrapped and delivered to the child or children’s home so the gifts can go under the Christmas tree just like any other family.

CASA volunteer Jessica Lewis said her first year as a volunteer was a little overwhelming.

“Last year, I didn’t have a CASA kid, but I helped deliver stuff, and it was literally like two truckloads of stuff,” she said. “Everything from beds to bikes; it was just overwhelming.”

“We want them to wake up Christmas morning, and Santa has come to bless them just like our children would get up on Christmas morning,” Samuel said. “We want them to be just like our children would be. They’ve already had so much taken from them.”

Samuel said sometimes she will get a phone call on Christmas Day from the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services with a child they took in that day. If CASA receives the call, then they will gather up what they can so these children will have gifts that day.

“My first Christmas here, that’s exactly what happened,” she said. “We got a teenager who wanted an iPod, and we had some here. We also have an organization that donates gift cards every year, and we were able to load up on those. We bought her some clothes and things and took it right over to her.”

CASA is one of seven primary programs of the Volunteers for Youth Justice program, which provides youth “an opportunity to develop a sense of responsibility for their actions and teaching new positive behaviors…giving them a chance to begin again,” reports their website, www.vyjla.org.

“It’s about building relationships with the kids,” Lewis said, “because the relationships they have are rocky. The kids will look for us. (Many) times they don’t know if their parents will be there (at a CASA visit), and sometimes they don’t know if they will see the same case worker, but they look for their CASA workers.”

CASA advocates, indicates the website, are “specially trained volunteers who serve as officers of the court and ‘friends’ to children in need. These volunteers are assigned by judges to speak on behalf of children who have been placed in foster care due to abuse or neglect.”

Erica Boulas, a CASA volunteer, called these special advocates “incredible.”

“It’s like they have children of their own, and they are totally dedicated to them,” she said. “They work hard to make sure these kids are getting the best of everything. It’s amazing, and aside from all the paperwork and talking with all the adults, you get to see this awesome kid. I could not imagine what these children go through every single day of their life. Their attitudes are fantastic.”

Samuel said the primary objective is to provide these children with a permanent, safe home.

“It’s whatever it takes to make sure these children are out of foster care and they are in a safe and permanent home as quickly as possible,” she said “The dream is to reunite them with family in Webster Parish. As soon as a child comes into care, CASA is appointed by a judge. We work closely with DCFS to ensure all services the case plan outlines are met. If the parents are not following the case plan, we advocate for (the children) to get a different placement for them.”

Many times, foster parents are willing to adopt children who come into their home. In order to become a foster parent, or a foster parent to adopt, the foster parents must meet a rigorous set of criteria set by DCFS to ensure the child is placed into a safe home.

“We thank God we have loving people that are willing to care for these children and their hearts are open to keep them forever,” Samuel said. “That’s what we want for them – a safe, forever home.”