A month into his new position as executive director of Spirit of the Plains Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, Robert DeLeon and his coworkers have gone to court, planned meetings and helped match four children with volunteers.

“I’m pretty happy about that. That we’re not just going to let people sit idly … we’re going to try and put them together with children so they can be that voice that children need in the court system,” DeLeon said.

DeLeon is in charge of a six-county corner of CASA, a national association that uses volunteers to advocate for children moving through the legal and social service systems on a long-term basis. Until a child finds a permanent home, the volunteer stands by his or her side. Defined by the Kansas 25th Judicial District, he now presides over Finney, Hamilton, Kearny, Greeley, Wichita and Scott counties.

DeLeon and his former boss, Debbie Reynolds, now the Garden City CASA volunteer coordinator, both began Sept. 4, coming off the August resignations of their predecessors, Becky Clark and Maria Arteaga.

Jane Krug, president of the Spirit of the Plains CASA board of directors, said the board chose DeLeon because of his experience in child advocacy, passion for connecting with people and “servant leadership style.” He would never ask an employee to do something he was not willing to do, Krug said.

“I think Robert will do a great job representing Spirit of the Plains CASA in our community and in the entire 25th Judicial District. He’s familiar with surrounding counties from his previous work, and I think that will be a benefit to us. I’m excited for him to be directing the work done by CASA, and I believe that he’s going to broaden the community support for our program,” Krug said.

DeLeon and Reynolds are the only full-time employees of the location, Reynolds said, but with their experience and support from their part-time coworkers, the two were “learning the business.”

“It’s like having a puzzle, but not having a picture to put the puzzle together,” Reynolds said. “But, we are slowly putting the puzzle together without that picture.”

Reynolds was formerly the executive director of Mosaic and the general manager at the Golf Club at Southwind, and DeLeon has worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters and served as community center director for the Salvation Army, business manager for Sunflower Home Health, associate director at Mosaic and campus director, foster care recruiter and development manager for EmberHope Youthville.

Both of their former positions helped them establish contacts with the Kansas Department for Children and Families, St. Francis Community Services and the court and school systems, Reynolds said, all of which have helped them navigate their new duties.

To DeLeon, his experience, especially his positions in Youthville dedicated to recruiting and managing both money and people, shows he is capable of directing all of the different facets of the office. The work, he said, was his passion.

“I’ve been working with children and families for 25 years … I love being able to see young people succeed. I love figuring out how to give them those opportunities to be successful. And matching them here, in this program, matching them with the right volunteer that’s going to help them be successful,” DeLeon said.

The local CASA currently has about 13 volunteers with plenty of room to grow, DeLeon said. He said 54 children are assigned to Spirit of the Plains, and about a third of them are on a waiting list to be matched with a volunteer. About 150 kids in the area would benefit from a volunteer reviewing their case, he said.

Volunteers, all of whom must be at least 18 years old, must complete a background check, interview process and about 30 hours of training. DeLeon said that he and Reynolds are learning to train incoming volunteers, and plan on holding training sessions in October and December. In 2019, he said, they hoped to match at least 15 children to volunteers.

“That’s a goal. Hopefully we’ll be able to find the volunteers to be able to do that,” DeLeon said.

Another priority, DeLeon said, was visibility, both physically and through programs.

They want to work out in the community, such as securing a grant to buy duffel bags for Garden City police officers to keep in their cruisers. This way, when children are picked up for protective custody, they can pack their belongings in something other than a trash bag, DeLeon said.

But the organization has a focus on literal visibility, as well. Within several weeks to a few months, DeLeon said CASA will be moving from its small, second floor office in the St. Catherine Medical Building to Fulton Terrace, a downtown strip mall housing several nonprofits and community organizations.

Reynolds said locals did not know where the CASA office was, or even what the organization did. DeLeon said eliminating that mystery and becoming more accessible to potential volunteers, clients and donors was “one of the most important things that we’re going to be doing.”

Both Reynolds and DeLeon remarked on their great working relationship, each saying the other made the job fun. In his four and a half years working under and being mentored by Reynolds at Mosaic, DeLeon said he felt like he got a “college education,” and that having her across the hallway made him even more confident they would be able to achieve their goals.

Even though DeLeon is Reynolds’ superior, she said he still calls her “boss.”

Both said they were sure of their direction, Reynolds saying she thought they could make the organization stronger, and dedicated to the helping others above all.

As a judge told DeLeon, “CASA is the eyes and the ears of the court, but the voice of the child.”

“I love that,” he said. “That’s what we need to do is be the voice of the child that sometimes isn’t heard.”

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.