Marv Middleton and Jim Ward June 1 at CASA's Cassopolis office. (The Daily News/John Eby)
Marv Middleton and Jim Ward June 1 at CASA's Cassopolis office. (The Daily News/John Eby)

Archived Story

4th CASAblanca at SMC July 24

Published 10:48pm Tuesday, June 1, 2010

By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News

CASSOPOLIS – Cass County Court-Appointed Special Advocates’ fourth annual CASAblanca returns to Southwestern Michigan College’s Mathews Conference Center this summer with food vendors who made it a “big-time” event in 2009.

Director Jim Ward said Tuesday that SMC “provided a different venue altogether” that could accommodate more than 200 people and help his independent organization net $38,000 with its only fundraiser while providing participants a fun time.

“To give you an example of how it’s grown,” Ward said, “the first year it was at Orchard Hills Country Club” near Buchanan. “The second year it was at the (Dowagiac) Elks. We couldn’t get 100 people in the Elks and less than that at Orchard Hills. It really worked out well having it at SMC” on Saturday, July 24.

CASA is working with humorous Chicago auctioneer, Jim Miller, who formerly worked in radio and now deals exclusively in these fundraisers for non-profits.

“He’s a comedian,” Ward said. “He gets the crowd rolling. We consult him throughout the year about what are saleable items and what should be in the silent auction or the live auction. His experience is very helpful” to event chair Beth McLoughlin.

CASAblanca ’10 takes place from 5:30 p.m. to approximately 9 and includes the aforementioned food and entertainment by the Dylan Brothers. For tickets, which cost $40, call 445-4431. There will be a cash bar.

“Each (food vendor) presents one item, their signature dish,” Ward explained, such as Wood Fire’s pot roast; Sauk Trail in Union, known for barbecue pulled pork and smoked salmon; Orchard Hills; Jeff Vlasicak’s Meat Market on M-62 in Cassopolis; grilled shrimp scampi by Morey’s Pub in Mishawaka, Ind., whose owner lives at Diamond Lake; and desserts by Caruso’s Candy Kitchen and S’Wonderful Confections.

Volunteers and board members make salad.

“We have a two-night package at the Grand Hotel” on Mackinac Island, Ward related. “People like getaways. We’re going to do a house-to-house progressive dinner on Dinner Lake. We did that last year. We’re going to do a cocktail cruise on Magician Lake. We’ve got a weekend package in Chicago that includes two nights at the Talbott Hotel, a little luxury hotel right off Michigan Avenue, with a gift certificate for dinner and city passes, which get you into all the museums, the aquarium and the Art Institute. That’s a nice package. We’ve got Cubs tickets, White Sox tickets and Notre Dame tickets.”

Food vendors set up around the perimeter of the room.

During the first half of the evening, people stray from their assigned seating to mingle and munch and to scrutinize silent auction items.

“Some people sit down for a few minutes to eat a plate of food,” Ward said. “Some people never sit down. Food is designed so you can eat it while you walk. We’re not going to give you a (messy) rib or chicken leg so you can’t balance your food and drink and bid at the same time. People just graze. We make it easy for people to be active all the time until the last hour and a half when the lights go down and the live auction starts for the big items. Judge (Susan) Dobrich will speak about CASA,” which she was instrumental in starting in 1995 (the first trained volunteers were activated in 1997). I talk a little bit about what the money goes for.”

Something new this year will be using SMC’s audio-visual capabilities to project CASA images and information on three screens, including announcement of silent auction winners and vendor recognition.

Five-year volunteer Marv Middleton said he was “impressed emotionally” with “calls to the heart,” where the auctioneer gives an opportunity for outright donations from $1,000 to $50. “I was impressed by how many people it involved.”

CASA, which operates with 1 1/2 paid positions and 20 volunteers under the oversight of a 13-member board, is seeing federal support dry up from $15 million to $10 million for 1,100 programs.

“A lot of CASA programs cannot fundraise” because of their ties to court programs, Ward said, “or another charitable organization, like United Way. We are independent, so we can do our own thing.”

They also receive some small grants, such as from the Shriners; and county support, including office space in the 1899 courthouse.

The $38,000 “allows us to recruit, train and activate more volunteers, to pay for mileage in certain cases for volunteers who have to go long distances to advocate for their children because more and more kids are housed in foster care out of the county. It allows us to contribute to foster care programs, like DHS’ (state Department of Human Services) Christmas party for foster children. We’re probably one of the largest supporters of that.”
How many volunteers are enough?

“The way I always answer that,” Ward said, “is that at any given time there are 125 to 150 children in foster care in Cass County. They may not all be in Cass County, but they are wards of the court. The magic number is somewhere between 20 and how many we would need for all of those children, but all of those children don’t need CASA volunteers.”
Middleton has a case, for example, with three children from the same family unit.

The 20 volunteers are working with 35 children.

A couple of volunteers have two cases, Ward said, but siblings account for most of the differential.

“In talking to Judge Dobrich and Leigh Feldman (Juvenile Division attorney/referee) and DHS,” Ward said, “we suspect half of the kids in foster care could use a CASA. Some have been in foster care for a long time. Their difficult years are behind them. They’re in guardianship situations and they’re going to age out. Many of them are doing well and living normal lives. There isn’t a reason to bring a volunteer into their life, but every day we’ve got kids removed from meth houses and stuff like that. They find themselves in foster care with dozens of strangers and they need a voice for all of the bureaucracy that’s in their lives all of a sudden.”

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