If it takes a village to raise a child, the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program within the California court system may be considered a village of villages.
Zarkhi Palmer, 19, knows this first-hand. He had no choice when he was swept into the LA County foster system at age four.
"Cops came once when I was real young,” he said, adding that he doesn’t remember much after that, except that he was in and out of different foster homes for years.
Zarkhi is in his second year at the University of Southern California, but says he almost didn’t make it this far.
"Some [foster] kids end up homeless or dead," he said.
That’s where CASA comes. The program has about 400 volunteers for roughly 1,000 kids in foster care, but that’s only a fraction of the 26,000-plus in the LA County system alone.
And at a time when the program is trying to help more and more foster kids, CASA is finding itself in tough economic times.
"We knew the cuts were coming in 2010," said executive director Dily Garcia, "and we needed to be self-sufficient as a non-profit by 2012."
While the program has been around nationally since 1978, this is the first year it will have to come up with funding entirely on its own.
Garcia says she hopes awareness of what the program is all about will help people to come forward to volunteer time, energy and money. The "CASAs" are all volunteers.
"They’re charged by the court to concern themselves with what is in the best interest of the child," Garcia said.
Zarkhi says life connected with his CASA while he was a junior in high school.
"Immediately we started going over the game plan," he said.
The "we" included Simone Friedman, a mother of four who already sent her kids off to college.
"I probably Googled it ten times before I picked up the phone to call," she said about CASA. Zarkhi calls her "amazing," and says she changed his life.
Her response: "It’s fun. You feel like you have a connection."
Friedman meets with Zarkhi once a month, but it was an extra step she took that he says made all the difference. When Zarkhi graduated from high school, his dream was to attend USC to study the music business.
Friedman helped him write essays, fill out applications and take tours of the USC campus and other schools. Zarkhi was admitted for the spring session, but that wasn’t the best news for him.
"If I didn’t go in the fall, I might have been possibly homeless," he said.
Friedman was worried that as he turned 18, he would be finished with the foster system, meaning he’d be on his own without a place to live. Getting accepted in the fall would give him housing for what otherwise would’ve been a six-month gap.
"I wrote emails. Lots of emails. Lots of letters. Lots of phone calls. And he got in," Friedman said. "I really pleaded his case that I felt was important for him to start on the right foot."
Now, Zarkhi is working on a studio album of his personal hip-hop writings.
Stories like these could become scarce as the CASA program falls on tough economic times.
"We’re banking that the community understands how important it is to provide vulnerable kids with help," Garcia said.
As of Sept. 1, with budget cuts taking away its state and federal funds over the last two years, CASA now has to come up with its own $2.5 million a year to stay afloat.
"There’s a lot people can do to help us," Garcia said, "and if you’re not up for being an advocate, you can always write a check to support somebody who does have the time to do that."
The annual Justice Jog is set for Sunday, Sept. 30. The 5k run/walk is one of the biggest supporting events for the program and registration is still available.
Information about volunteering is also available online. CASA needs volunteers of all types, particularly men and Spanish speakers.
For information on the program, visit www.CASALA.org.