WAYNE, NJ – The Passaic County CASA’s office is stuffed with approximately 1,600 donated holiday gifts for children in the foster care system. This week, volunteer individuals and organizations showed up to donate their time wrapping the presents that are destined to be found on Christmas morning under Christmas trees throughout Passaic County.

“Usually by the time we are all done at the end of the year, it’s about four-hundred children in the foster care/child welfare system that we provide gifts for,” said Erica Kaslander, Executive Director of the Passaic County CASA. “What’s different about our holiday drive compared to other holiday toy drives, is that our advocates collect specific wishes.”

This is part of their normalcy program: CASA’s goal is to give as normal a childhood as possible to children in the foster care system. “Just because they are in foster care doesn’t mean that they should have a childhood that’s any different than anyone else,” said Kaslander. “My kids make a wish list for Santa, and we believe a child in foster care should have the same capacity.”

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CASA stands for Court-Assigned Special Advocates.  CASA trains and supports volunteer advocates who are assigned cases by family court judges to work on a child’s behalf to improve their circumstances and advocate for their rights.  Each advocate is required to visit their charges monthly, to learn about their circumstances and complete an independent investigation on behalf of the family court judge. “They attend court, submit a written court report, but they are not the foster parents,” said Kaslander.

Some children, whose circumstances make it impossible for them to be maintained in a family environment, are placed in group homes or must live in hospital settings because of life-long chronic illnesses. “We have cases that we’ve been assigned as advocates for six, eight or ten years,” said Kaslander. “There are children who are never going to be able to be re-unified with their biological parents, and they’re not likely to be adopted.”

“Thank God there is somebody who is willing to volunteer and spends monthly time with them,” Kaslander continued.  “The advocates bring them holiday and birthday gifts throughout the year, school supplies and donated clothes.  And, obviously, attends court hearings, their school functions, etc. These children are not in a foster family, they’re not with someone who plays that parental role for them, so the advocate is the only person who is a constant in their life.”

The advocates begin collecting wish lists from their charges starting in October.  “The wish lists are brought back to CASA,” said Kaslander. “We then send those wishes to many different, very generous organizations: churches, schools, businesses who each take the wish lists. Some take ten or twenty names; some take one hundred and fifty names.” The members, school families, employees or customers of these organizations “adopt” individual children and purchase the gifts on each list. They are then brought to CASA to be wrapped. “The goal is the children to get exactly what they want, not just random, generic gifts,” said Kaslander.

The advocates distribute the wrapped gifts to the foster parents or the care givers at the group homes so that the children will wake up Christmas morning with presents under the tree just like some other children experience.  “It all goes back to our philosophy of normalcy and trying to create as normal an environment as possible for kids in foster care,” said Kaslander.

Every year, the Willowbrook Mall puts up a CASA tree with stars representing children in the foster care system.  Customers at the mall choose a star from the tree and purchase the gifts on the individual child’s wish list.  This year, Willowbrook Mall customers purchased seventy-seven gifts and Senior General Manager, Nancy Barbary brought them down along with lunch for all of the volunteer wrappers. “CASA is one of the best organizations; they do great work with children who really need assistance,” said Barbary. “And, helping others is what Christmas is all about, so I love being a small part of this wonderful effort.”

Sean Hogan, Jesse Godleski and Kelly Huber from the Hyatt Regency in Morristown drove down to help with the wrapping. “We’re here to help wrap the toys for these special children because we are great wrappers,” said Hogan with a laugh. “We love to be a part of events like this. The Hyatt Regency likes to give back to the community however we can, whenever we can throughout the year.”  When asked what it meant to him personally, Hogan said: “It’s a good feeling to be able to help children experience the joy of Christmas that I got to experience as a child.”

Sibylle Wallace worked as an advocate for CASA for years but could no longer take cases. She now participates by showing up to wrap presents every year. “I think about each of the kids that I’m wrapping presents for, and hoping they have a happy Christmas.”

It’s said that in gift-giving, it’s the thought that counts. For many of us, blessed with family and friends, we can sometimes take that thought for granted.  Along each step of this process: the wish list asked for, the gift purchased, the gift wrapped, then given, each child has someone thinking about them and wishing for them happiness and love.

To help support Passaic County CASA, visit their website: https://www.passaiccountycasa.org/

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