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Alum Editorial

How My CASA Volunteer Helped Me Flourish

Jaleesa Suell

When I was 8 years old, I was removed from the custody of my mother—a drug addict—and separated from my siblings. At the time, I was living in a two-bedroom apartment with my four brothers and sisters, my mother and my grandmother in the heart of West Oakland—one of the most dangerous parts of the city, where drugs and gang violence rule the streets.

After I was uprooted, it became increasingly difficult for me to feel a sense of security. I became skeptical and created a barrier between myself and everyone else. My inability to trust and connect with others resulted in feelings of low self-worth. This was one of my greatest challenges because it affected my ability to make friends. I was often depressed, and by the time I entered middle school, I was very withdrawn.

Things changed when I was 11. That year, I was assigned a CASA volunteer. It was through her influence that I began to step out of my shell and to flourish and grow into the outgoing, confident, motivated and open-minded young woman I am today.

In 2002, when I met Nicole, my CASA volunteer, I was very reluctant to accept her. I was standoffish and fearful that she, too, would walk in and out of my life. Nicole felt defeated at times because she didn’t know how to get through to me. Though she owed me nothing and had absolutely nothing to prove to me, she was determined to show me that she would be a reliable and consistent figure in my life.

I met with Nicole a couple of times a week, and she exposed me to many different things. We went to plays, the symphony and dance performances. It was through these enrichment activities that I realized I wanted to learn how to play the piano and to dance.

During my second year of high school, I realized I was not being academically challenged; I thought this would affect my chances of getting into a competitive university. With Nicole’s encouragement and support, I applied to a number of private schools in the Bay Area. I was accepted into Holy Names, where I excelled and blossomed into an accomplished young woman.

My CASA volunteer went above and beyond the call of duty. I believe that everyone is born with the ability to succeed but that some fail to meet their potential. As youth in care, we need more support to know what we are capable of because we often feel we are less than average. My CASA volunteer provided that encouragement and support.

The things I learned as a child from Nicole have helped me to be the person I am today. I learned the value of hard work and determination. I learned that I have to be tenacious in my pursuit of success. My CASA volunteer also taught me that service to the community is not only beneficial to the individuals we serve but to the entire community. It is through service that we uplift one another and can have a tremendous impact on the lives of others. Nicole has inspired me to give back in hopes of influencing someone’s life the way she influenced mine.

I am now matriculating at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. I have also maintained a stable job and a vibrant social life. Because of Nicole, I have been able to develop secure and healthy relationships. My career goal is to influence child welfare policy. I want to eliminate the policy barriers that prevent children from receiving the family that they deserve. I wish to divert other kids from a life of poverty, drugs and violence and point them toward a productive path.

Many people think it is difficult to influence a teenager, but my experience with my CASA volunteer is proof that it’s not an impossible task. Because we are uprooted and moved from placement to placement, we are vulnerable and less likely to allow others into our lives. Nicole and I were able to move past vulnerability and build a relationship because she was patient, reliable and unconditionally accepting. She helped me understand that I am capable and deserving of a better life than the circumstances that caused my entry into care. Nicole provided me with a sense of security, belonging and acceptance. Not only was she my CASA volunteer, but she is now someone I consider family.

Jaleesa Suell, 20, was named a 2010 Outstanding Young Leader by FosterClub. As a member of the CASA of Alameda County Volunteer/Youth Speakers Bureau, she encouraged people to volunteer for the organization by talking about the benefits of advocacy to the youth receiving services. Through her involvement with Foster Care Alumni of America and the Orphan Foundation of America, Jaleesa has also advocated for the rights of former and current foster youth.


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Anonymous @ 7/20/2011 6:56:19 PM 
Awesome. I am a former foster care child and also planning to volunteer with CASA. My mother was my abuser. She punched me when I was 5 years old and slammed my face into the wall knocking baby teeth out. I remember everything even today at the age of 29 years old. I was removed at the age of 17 years old from the home, after I was assigned a guardian ad litem by the courts. My sisters were taken 1 year later, but returned home to end up as runaways. I was lucky and like this girl have had a wonderful life because someone helped me break away. I hurt and still long for my mother to act normal but she never has. I have 3 boys, and a wonderful husband. My oldest is an honor student. I have met political figures through my line of work and have always held a job. I want to return the same for a child.
Anonymous @ 7/18/2011 11:50:41 AM 
Anonymus@7/2:45 p.m.

Jaleesa, I am so very proud of you!!! Thank you Nicole for not giving up on Jalessa. There is much to be thankful for. To be a guardian is a gift an d an honor; to be the recipient of what CASA has to offer is a blessing; to come through it all with the help of someone that really cares about you makes a great difference. Just by your story I believe that you can do anything you put your heart too.

Anonymous @ 6/30/2011 6:47:51 PM 
What a wonderful, uplifting, hope filled story! Thank you Nicole!
Anonymous @ 6/30/2011 3:29:13 PM 
This is a wonderful example of how we can all make a difference in the life of a child.
Anonymous @ 6/30/2011 2:21:37 PM 
What a Fantastic story....so inspiring!
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