The third annual When Life Gives you Lemons fundraising dinner Nov. 12 that benefitted Southeastern Indiana Voices for Children and its Court-Appointed Special Advocates who help abused and neglected children started out with a stunning video full of many voices.

“There are children at times who do want to go to court, but they’re scared, and we sit with them.”

“In a room full of people, when no one speaks up, CASA does.”

“Imagine being a kid that every adult has failed — and we’re it. We change everything for these kids.”

“We have to help them overcome the fear of not being loved and not having a home.”

Executive director Tonya Ruble-Richter explained, “We recruit, train, supervise and support volunteer advocates. There are 100 of us now. We’re so proud of the way our communities have stepped up in Ripley and Jefferson counties.”

A few years ago there were four volunteers in Ripley County. “Now we have 40.”

In the two counties, the number of children served has grown from 83 in 2014 to 375 so far in 2019.

For the first time in Ruble-Richter’s five-year tenure, the waiting list of children who needed advocates was eliminated. ”This year we served every child for the first time,” the director observed.

”As the (Indiana Department of Child Services) system changes, Voices is changing with it. The challenges we have in front of us now are different. ... These kids (still) need voices in court... We are going to continue every single year getting better with your help.”

While guests dined, three speakers presented short messages.

Ripley Circuit Court Judge Ryan King said while children who are aided by advocates benefit, “the court is, in my mind, the second beneficiary.” He called the volunteers “basically the eyes and ears of the court in a civil case” who complete lay person investigations. “Without a CASA in each case, the court would have a lot more difficulty in making the right decision.”

“Why are we here tonight? It’s because of the number ... of abuse and neglect cases that have skyrocketed from 2013” until the 2017 high water mark. “Why was that? Because of opiates and now meth. That’s 70% of the cases I deal with.”

The judge reported in 2013 he made decisions about 33 CHINS (Child In Need of Services) cases. Before this year is over, King will have ruled on at least 33 termination of parental rights cases — “you’re not mom, you’re not dad anymore, someone else is. That’s breathtaking to me.”

Jefferson Circuit Court Judge D.J. Mote, who’s almost finished his first year, said, “I’ve learned so much. If you look around the room this evening, you’re going to see people from all different professions and walks of life — probation officers, prosecutors, caseworkers, DCS attorneys, teachers. The one thing we all have in common, we’re all fighting for the kids. We’re trying to make a better world for these children ... If we want to fix the problems in our community ... the drug problem, the truancy problem, the crime, we’ve got to start in the family.”

Indiana GAL/CASA director Leslie Dunn, Indianapolis, explained, “We get our funding from the Legislature. We are grateful to our legislators who support us ... and our county councilmen and everybody in the community who supports CASA. I look out at you tonight and see the wonderful relationships Tonya has built with you. We cannot do the work that we do without community support.

She called Ruble-Richter, who has assisted colleagues with various issues and challenges, “a powerful, impactful leader and we’re very, very grateful for that.”

“To me CASA is about the power of one. To have an adult who says (to a child), ‘You can do this, you can stay in school.’” She praised advocates who encourage kids. “I compare this to a Red Cross volunteer opportunity. It’s not a one-and-done type thing. You are entering people’s lives in the middle of a crisis ... and you’re trying to pick up the pieces ... You’re trying to build that family up again. It is very rewarding, but it’s not easy.”

Five were honored with Champion for Children Awards for effecting change in the lives of mistreated children.

“I just cannot say enough good about” Ripley County Department of Child Services director Michelle Smith, said the executive director. She must follow IDCS policies. “Their lens is very different than CASAs. I’m super thankful for the partnership we’re all working very hard to build together.” Ruble-Richter and Smith meet regularly and also call and text each other. “She absolutely wants to make a difference in kids’ lives. She’s an amazing leader. When people bring issues to me, I know I can go to her and we’re able to resolve things.”

Smith reported, “Tonya and I have collaborated a lot this year and worked hard to improve relationships and increase communication to achieve better outcomes for those we serve. I am a part of an amazing team that really works hard to help kids and families. They are the ones doing the hard work in the trenches. I am just the lucky one that gets to guide, teach and sing their praises.”

Jefferson County juvenile probation officer Jenny Straub Applegate was another award winner “because, seriously, we get more calls from her than anybody else in probation,” according to the director. She contacts Ruble-Richter to say, “’I think this child needs this ... hey, watch out for this.’ It’s so parallel to what CASA does. ... She actually makes a difference daily and we’re so grateful to her.” The executive director also gave a shout-out to Ripley County Court Services staff (which includes probation officers) and director Shannon Schmaltz, who “do an amazing job.”

Straub Applegate, an 18-year probation officer, saluted the judge, probation director and prosecutor with whom she works. “I’m glad to see CASA’s presence,” which has increased communication and made her job more productive.

A surprise Champion for Children crystal trophy went to seven-year board member Pat Polley, Madison. Ruble-Richter said, “I honestly don’t have enough words to say what she has meant to me as a person, director and friend. Pat moved the needle in more ways than I can count. ... Every time we were meeting adversity, she was there to keep pushing. Voices for Children wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for Pat Polley.” She will leave the board to begin Friends of CASA.

Polley responded, “I am so proud” of what the board and director have accomplished. “The staff is amazing. I have the deepest respect for all of you CASAs who do the undoable.”

Ripley County CASA volunteer Bill Goodwin “is one of the most staid, stoic people you’ve ever met,” Ruble-Richter noted. The two-year advocate “has made such a difference in kids’ lives. He looks at things so impartially” and is able to build rapport with IDCS and providers. “He just oozes respect when he talks to people. Bill and his Community Church of Greensburg and Batesville have provided the largest support we’ve ever had from a faith-based organization. ... They support us financially, they meet with us regularly just to see what our needs are,” and even helped set up and clean up the dinner. Goodwin and Batesville Campus Pastor John Vadeboncoeur “are so instrumental to Voices and our growth in Ripley County.”

Goodwin observed, “It’s an honor to work with the staff and volunteers on behalf of the kids.” His Christian faith helps him “defend their cause and secure justice for them.”

“Rock star comes to mind” when Ruble-Richter thinks about Jefferson County CASA volunteer Linda Zapp. “She takes the hardest cases. She is so able to build rapport with kids who are struggling.” One child involved in a criminal case became a first for the organization. Zapp testified at the trial about the young victim. “She and I have cried together over so many heartbreaking cases,” some of which have amazing endings.

Zapp said, “It’s overwhelming to say what this organization and role mean to me. ... It means seeing the world through the lens of a child ... honestly, that is hard and scary and sometimes frightening ... I’m able to advocate some change in their lives and that’s meaningful beyond what I’m able to put into words.”

A 10-year-old girl who was previously helped by Ruble-Richter, then a Court-Appointed Special Advocate, kicked off the live auction.

She reported, “I was adopted after four and a half years in foster care.” The child listed the reasons advocates are important: “We spend less time in the foster care system. We always have someone in our corner who has our best interests at heart. We have someone willing to stand up and fight for us ... We are less likely to re-enter the system.”

The girl, who wore a homemade T-shirt that said, “My CASA helped save my life,” pointed out, “What I needed was to be protected, safe and loved for the rest of my life, no matter what. I was given a better life because of people who never gave up on me.”

Ruble-Richter said, “Every child has a chance. It’s you,” asking attendees to raise their paddles to donate $100, the cost to support a child for one month. Paddles were held aloft. Those proceeds along with event sponsorships, silent and live auction bids netted the organization $33,000.

Debbie Blank can be contacted at debbie.blank@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or 812-717-3113.