Every child needs a hero, somebody who believes in them wholeheartedly, and who is always on their side.
Katie Napolitano, VP at a social impact investment company, is also Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) to six New York City foster children, ages 4-19. These brothers and sisters had only been in the same room together once before Katie arranged a sibling visit earlier this year.
Katie first became aware of the desperate need for Advocates through a friend of hers, a young man who defied the odds, graduated from college, and became a foster care success story. He told Katie that he could not have done it without the support he received from his CASA. “If you want to make a real difference in the life of a foster child,” he said, “Become a CASA.”
According to Katie, “There are so many disengaged, at-risk youth in this city, but there are also many resources and opportunities for kids who want to change their lives. Often times, what these children need is just one person to help connect them to the right resources, and to believe in their success. Being an Advocate bridges that gap, and can have a transformational impact on their well-being and future.”
Take Miguel, a 17-year-old on Katie’s case. A formerly underachieving high school student, his school was a two-hour journey from home each way. Why? Because no one assisted him with the high school selection form, and so he simply chose one at random. Tired by the time he arrived each morning, he sat in classrooms with overburdened teachers instructing 50 or more students, and was ready to give up trying. Katie helped Miguel find a Transfer High School just 10 minutes from his home that had smaller classrooms, paid internships, and great teachers. Because the school only has a 15% acceptance rate, Miguel had to work hard to improve his attendance and performance to prove he was a strong candidate. Five months and four rounds of interviews later, the principal shook Miguel’s hand and welcomed him into their school. Since then, Miguel has raised his grade point average by over 20 points, received two certificates of perfect attendance, and been invited to join the Student Council.
The biggest impact though, says Katie, has been on Miguel’s happiness and self-esteem. “Katie,” Miguel told her on Thanksgiving, “I’m thankful that you inspired me and helped motivate me to have a better life and experience that will live with me forever.”
Jonathan, Miguel’s older brother, has an equally inspiring story. Jonathan always dreamed of working for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Despite growing up in a tough neighborhood and being placed in foster care as a teen, he always has kept this goal in mind. Easily distracted and off-track in high school, Jonathan decided to sign up for a GED program instead. Katie convinced him to reconsider a high school diploma, and with her encouragement and support, Jonathan applied to and was accepted into one of the best night high schools in the city. He also began taking day classes at one of the city’s best vocational schools. Jonathan wakes up every morning at 6 a.m. to attend his Building Maintenance internship, tutoring, and five hours of night school, not returning home until past 10 p.m. Despite this strenuous schedule, he has never been tardy or absent for a single class, and has met all of his goals. Jonathan received a grade of 100% in his summer coursework, a “Certificate of Academic Achievement,” an A in his vocational course, and is considered by his principal as, “one of our biggest success stories.” Jonathan’s goal after graduationis to apply for his Associates Degree so that he can eventually become a Supervisor in the MTA.
And then there’s Elizabeth, their younger sister, who received “Student of the Month” in September 2012, and achieves all As and Bs in her classes. Elizabeth loves art, so Katie helped her obtain a scholarship for a summer art program. Elizabeth was featured on local television as a “great art student,” and she was awarded another free class and art supplies. Katie also attended a high school fair with Elizabeth to help her select a good school – one that’s not two hours from her home.
That’s just three of the six. Katie advocates for the younger siblings as well, following up on issues so that they do not fall through the cracks.
“Given my background in impact investing, I see how CASA NYC’s impact goes beyond changing lives one at a time – their work also has an enormous knock-on effect and a deep societal and economic impact. Empowering youth to build their future, helping to reduce drop-out, incarceration, and teen pregnancy rates and breaking generational cycles of poverty – all of this reduces dependency on the state and produces a lasting impact on communities.”
Katie is silent for a minute, and then she smiles. “Yes, you make a difference in their lives … but they change yours even more.”
Launched in 1979, CASA NYC operates in all five boroughs, and is the only organization of its kind that trains volunteers to become Advocates to help some of the most abused and neglected children in foster care improve their well-being. Advocates are involved in all aspects of Family Court proceedings and work to ensure that each child is placed in a safe home and receives the medical, social, and educational services they need to flourish. In 2011 CASA NYC served 15,000 children in foster care. For information on CASA NYC, please visit http://www.casa-nyc.org/.
For information about how to help in other areas of the country, search CASA or Court Appointed Special Advocates and the name of your city or county.