More than 300 community members, movers and shakers, advocate volunteers and other supporters of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Union County gathered recently for its fifth annual Foster the Dream gala to celebrate the volunteer-based nonprofit’s success in protecting the best interests of local youth placed in foster care due to abuse, neglect or abandonment — and highlight in particular the exemplary work of two., including Westfield’s Barbara Bagger.

Presented the Dream-Keeper Award for Outstanding Volunteerism, Bagger is both an adoptive and biological mother, and wife to former state Sen. Richard Bagger. She advocates for four foster youth with histories of substance abuse, homelessness, medical and educational needs, sexual and physical abuse, and neglect. Through 15 court appearances, the judge has accepted 60 of her 76 recommendations. Long-time Summit resident Marité Robinson, previously a CASA volunteer out-of-county who then volunteered 10 years as a board member for CASA of Union County, received the Honorable Jo-Anne B. Spatola Dream-Maker Award.

As dinner guests celebrated with cocktails, dancing, auctions, raffles, wine pulls, ice cream bar, fresh popcorn takeaways, and a gif-photo booth that stole the social-media show, there was another more serious message of the evening: there continues to be a dire need for additional community volunteers to serve as advocates.

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Said Executive Director Marla Higginbotham, “Barbara and Marité are shining examples of the power of passionately preserving the welfare of others. Each have busy lives and other responsibilities yet they choose to serve and change the course for children without a safety net. They are that safety net. It’s CASA of Union County’s privilege to have them. Despite these great strides and all the work of our dedicated advocates, nearly half the local youth in foster care still need their own Barbara or Marité, their voice in the system. As the only organization in the county providing this service to the judiciary, it’s our duty to trumpet the urgent need for more volunteers to step up, speak up and lift up a fragile child. The power to change the trajectory of a life is there for the taking.”

CASA volunteers are court-empowered to speak to all parties in the child’s life and serve as eyes and ears for the judge. Nearly half of the more than 500 Union County youth in care still need a CASA volunteer to protect their best interests. Two advocate training sessions are forming now that incorporate six in-person classes with online coursework: Saturday mornings starting Feb. 24 and Tuesday evenings starting April 3. For details, contact Lisa Poris at 908-293-8135.