While April is officially “Volunteer Month,” it’s always timely to recognize those who give their hours, skills, and thoughts to serve others.  Whether mentors or tutors, helping in hospitals or disaster relief, volunteers assist those of all ages and bring us together.

Josiah H. Brown Source: Josiah H. Brown

This is harder when public health requires “social distancing.”  But some volunteering can occur remotely, via phone or computer.  Volunteers —with proper precautions— can help with urgent child care, collect critical supplies, check on aging neighbors, pick up groceries and medicine —among other forms of mutual aid.  Moreover, needs continue: preparing or delivering meals, running blood drives, distance learning protecting children at risk.

As elsewhere, my hometown of New Haven sees volunteers from high school to college, from sports coaches and religion teachers to retired reading and math tutors.

As colleagues at United Way and community action agencies recognize, there’s a steady need for such volunteers —even if they are no substitute for the power and adequate funding of public agencies, or for philanthropic donations providing crucial complementary dollars for professional staff and infrastructure (databases, accounting, rent, insurance, etc.)

From Tocqueville’s era on, volunteer energy has animated our “associations” and communities.  “Social capital” describes how networks of relationships can accumulate and intersect— yielding a net benefit at little cost.  Organizations like Generations United promote such action in the spirit that “we’re stronger together,” across generations to address problems: social isolation, homelessness, educational inequality.

Some may view volunteering as a luxury struggling workers, in jobs without benefits, can’t afford.  That can be true, and there should be safety nets for all, including transportation, child- and health care.  Still, many adults can find a few hours a month.

Volunteering alone is no remedy for society’s ills—especially at periods of crisis like now.  Unemployment and insecurity are surging.
We need government (with merits that may be forgotten or taken for granted) at all levels to apply necessary resources.  Professional staff are important to nonprofits’ effective and sustained operation—and to their agility during the COVID pandemic.  Volunteers, though, are key partners.

For a child-focused organization like CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Southern Connecticut—part of a national network—April is notable not only as a Volunteer Month but also as Child Abuse Prevention Month.  For a movement that remains vital decades after passage of the federal Child Abuse and Prevention Act (CAPTA) of 1974 and subsequent laws, this month represents the year-round need for volunteer advocates.

CASA volunteers get to know children in foster care, and their circumstances—to make evidence-based recommendations supporting judges, social workers, and attorneys in pursuit of a child’s best interest.  Our hope, if possible, is to reunite children with their family, or identify a promising adoption if necessary.  Avoiding a cycle of foster homes, of re-traumatization and disruption of loving bonds and educational progress, is the aim.  Health and safety are fundamental.  Our volunteers strive to help each child secure a safe, permanent home in which to thrive.

The stakes are high.  For example, despite strides in our state’s child protection system—with 9 in 10 kids in homes rather than institutional settings—some four thousand Connecticut children are in foster care, with abuse/neglect potentially underreported during the COVID crisis.  Nationally, just half of the 440,000 in foster care graduate high school and only 3 percent a four-year college.  Given intergenerational transfer of adverse childhood experiences (ACES), children who land in foster care face increased risks to their health, relationships, careers, futures.

That’s where CASA volunteers can make a difference, as caring, consistent adults able not just to illuminate a child’s best interest but also to nurture resilience and self-advocacy to change a child’s story—interrupting cycles of family trauma and pain.  At its best, this movement can have a dual purpose: Direct CASA service, child-by-child, can boost families in a more systemic way.

As Chip and Dan Heath argue, large problems “are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions” that can include volunteers. Similarly, Dan Ariely observes, “In Judaism, it says that if you save one person, you can look at yourself as somebody who has saved the whole world.  In that regard, what goodness means is to scale the problem down to the size where we can have an impact — and then have the impact.”  According to the Quran: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”

This hopeful vision can become real only through collaboration of strong, publicly funded and privately supplemented systems; professional agency and nonprofit staffs; and dedicated volunteers.

So this April—in anticipation of May as Foster Care Month, November as Adoption Month, and throughout the year—let’s acknowledge the service of volunteers, including those devoted to child abuse (and neglect) prevention.  Think of your own family experiences.  Please consider joining this cause with your time, talent, and/or treasure, and by supporting strong public provision of related resources.

Josiah H. Brown is executive director of CASA of Southern Connecticut (New Haven, New London, and Middlesex counties), part of the Connecticut CASA and  national CASA network

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