Spotlight On ~ Guardian ad Litem

Nonprofit organizations throughout Asheville and the surrounding area nourish the people within our communities, caring for those in need, protecting our historic heritage, educating young and old, and nurturing our cultural soul. Each month, The Laurel is bringing to our readers some of the stories behind these agencies. This month, the “spotlight” is on Guardian ad Litem.

For 30 years, the Guardian Ad Litem program has served the best interests of children in North Carolina. Today, there are 167 volunteers in Buncombe County serving 435 children by acting as their advocates in court cases involving their neglect or abuse.

The court-appointed special representatives of Guardian Ad Litem work with a child or several siblings in a family to explore their needs, monitor their situation through the duration of the case, and make recommendations on their behalf in court as the judge works to identify a safe and permanent home for them.

Jennifer Nehlson, Guardian ad Litem District Administrator for North Carolina Courts says that, despite a core of dedicated volunteers, the program needs more people willing to step up and help more children.

“Any person who cares about children is qualified to be a Guardian Ad Litem. It’s the willingness to serve the children of your community that’s important,” says Jennifer. “We will train you to do it.”

The training takes 30 hours and includes time observing how the court system works. Once trained, volunteers are sworn in by a district court judge and are assigned a case based on their strengths and interests.

This volunteer commitment requires on average 10–12 hours per month of meetings with Department of Social Services social workers, visiting the family, and reporting findings (what’s working, what’s not working, and what needs to change) to the court.

Long-time volunteer Jan Neu says each Guardian Ad Litem is likely to handle situations a bit differently, but that the common ground among them is finding the very best option for the children. “There’s no one right way to do it,” says Jan.

She emphasizes instead that each volunteer should be open to learning about and understanding different ways of life and different cultures. Jan says it’s important to retain your values but also to keep a perspective on how others may live. She maintains that outlook with the saying “dirty enough to be happy and clean enough to be healthy.”

This nugget of wisdom is the kind of mentorship this 25-year veteran of the Guardian Ad Litem program provides to new volunteers. She says, “You’ve got to visit the trailer,” to a new volunteer unsure of entering a housing situation so foreign to her own. Jan believes that the challenges of learning about the kids with whom she works, the court system, and herself makes this the most rewarding and demanding volunteerism of her life.

As someone who likes working with teens, Jan worked with one young man who lived in a lot of different foster homes. She steadily represented his interests throughout. She recently saw him at the mall and he introduced her as the woman who helped him through a lot of problems.

“He’s graduated from college. He’s not certain that he’s successful, but he looks like it to me,” says Jan, clearly proud of his accomplishments.

Pam Gretz, who has volunteered as a Guardian Ad Litem for 12 years, says she and a social worker helped a nine-year-old girl, neglected by her mother, find a permanent home in Henderson County.

“That little girl struck it big, not because the family had wealth, but because they had love and empathy to make a difference in the child’s life,” says Pam of the positive outcome she helped forge for this child.

Pam, Jan, and Jennifer acknowledge the close partnership of the volunteers of the Guardian Ad Litem Association and the staff of the courts. The fluid partnership ensures that children receive the advocacy of a trained Guardian Ad Litem representative, and volunteers receive continuing education opportunities and assistance from court staff as needed. The association is dedicated to helping children feel normal despite the upheaval they’re experiencing.

“The Guardian Ad Litem Association raises money to meet the unmet needs of children in care,” adds Jennifer. “The association may fund summer camp for a child, buy a yearbook, or a high school class ring.” She says the group also collects new homemade quilts or knit blankets to distribute to children removed from their homes.

She says children in foster care who are otherwise well cared for, well fed, and attending school may be in homes that do not have the money to afford soccer shoes or music lessons for a child with talent and interest. That’s where the association’s fund-raising efforts further support the children.

At a recent volunteer appreciation lunch, Jennifer spoke with deep sincerity about the honor and pleasure she feels in working with Guardian Ad Litem volunteers in Buncombe County.

“It’s the most satisfying job I’ve ever done. Paid or unpaid,” says Pam.

Interested in volunteering? Visit nccourts.org/citizens/GAL or call 828.251.6130. To donate to  the children’s scholarship fund, call calling 828.335.9593.

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