Dan and Kim Piddington couldn’t stick around long after the ribbon-cutting for the building that bears their name.
The couple, with their young son in tow, immediately headed out to the West Coast to pick up a grandchild and enjoy a family trip. At the end of the vacation, that grandson would be coming back home with them to stay.
The Piddingtons had already adopted one of their grandsons. Now the brothers will be together, with their grandparents taking on a parental role.
The Piddingtons’ names are in front of the new building for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Southwest Missouri, on a sign designating it the Dan & Kim Piddington Headquarters. The nonprofit has a mission that’s personal to the couple, as court-appointed special advocates, or CASAs, provide children with support during every part of their foster care experience.
Though its ribbon-cutting was held May 25, the headquarters, located at the intersection of Glenstone Avenue and Chestnut Expressway, has been in operation since February, said Executive Director Laura Farmer. What’s new is the adjacent CASA Kids’ Clubhouse, which came into use in the last few weeks as a few punch list items were finalized.
The acquisition cost for the two buildings was $1.14 million, Farmer said, and the total cost of the purchase, reconstruction and infill came to $3.4 million. A $3.7 million capital campaign ended in April, and money above the project costs remains in an account for ongoing maintenance. CASA officials would not disclose the amount of the Piddingtons’ gift, but their name joins dozens of others in the headquarters atrium.
CASA has just over 350 volunteers, up from 100 five years ago, providing advocacy services to about 500 foster children, Farmer said.
The organization serves Greene and Christian counties, and it recently expanded to serve Taney County. Greene County has 650 children in foster care and Christian has 165, and Farmer said Taney adds another 465. U.S. Census Bureau figures show Greene has a population of about 301,000 and Taney has only about 56,000. Farmer said substance abuse issues play a role in the higher rate of children in foster care in the county that is home to Branson, with the tourism industry resulting in a population that comes and goes.
“It’s kind of like feast or famine in that community, and so I think that really complicates things,” she said.
A growing and changing population makes the opening of the new headquarters timely. Development Director Esther Munch said the former office – leased space at the National Avenue Office Park, across from Mercy Hospital – was maxed out. She noted the former offices were roughly the size of the atrium of the new headquarters, and it took some time for staff to get used to all the elbow room.
Munch said the new headquarters will ultimately house at least 20 CASA staff members who will recruit, train and support CASA volunteers. There are 11 staffers now, and seven of these coordinate volunteers. Advocate supervisors are already being sought.
The goal of the organization is to serve every foster child in the three counties, Farmer said.
The CASA website describes a volunteer as “a dependable friend in the midst of the undependable life they have been given.”
Advocates receive 30 hours of initial training in the child welfare system and in advocacy techniques, plus an additional 12 hours of training per year. Most have only one case – a child or set of siblings, typically – and average five to 10 hours of volunteer work per month.
Volunteer advocates, who work on behalf of their foster child along with court-appointed guardian ad litem and other social services professionals, make a difference in the outcome for children, according to Farmer. She noted that when a child has an advocate, the likelihood of that child reentering the foster care system drops from the statewide average of 16% to 1%.
Farmer said the CASA clubhouse is the first of its kind in Missouri. There are a handful of others in the United States, including one in California that served as a model for the Springfield facility.
“They really only use their CASA clubhouse for their own programs,” she said. “Our community being the collaborative community that it is, we wanted to look beyond our program and the kids that we’re serving.”
CASAs visit with the children at least once a month, and with the opening of the clubhouse, that visit can now happen in a private space. The clubhouse also accommodates family visits for children who are separated from their parents.
Previously, some of these meetings happened in public places, among them fast-food restaurant dining rooms, Farmer said.
“With the onset of COVID, we had a lot of those public places close,” she said. “Most of the family visits right now happen at the library, and I love the library, but it’s not conducive to having a family visit.”
The clubhouse provides both privacy and comfort for foster kids and their families, Farmer said.
“It’s a more homelike setting, and they need that,” she said.
Greene County Juvenile Judge Andy Hosmer expressed enthusiasm for the new clubhouse.
“We’re really excited about what opportunities that’s going to give kids in foster care,” he said.
The court’s Celebrating Families program, a curriculum of the National Association for Children of Addiction, already meets in the clubhouse, Hosmer said, and there are numerous other opportunities for children to benefit from the facility.
Hosmer recalled the time before he was a judge, when he served as guardian ad litem for foster children.
“We had visitation in the state office building on the fifth floor, in a dingy, 8-by-10 room,” he said.
Visitations had to be supervised, and everyone was in the same room.
“It was a bad way to keep that bond between parents and kids,” he said. “We’ve done a really intentional job of getting parenting time out in the community. This is another piece of that – having the ability to have that parenting time in a welcoming space that’s also conveniently located.”
The clubhouse has visitation rooms that allow observers to monitor from an adjoining room when required. It also has a large kitchen, where families can have a meal together, older foster children can learn cooking skills or even where volunteers can make holiday cookies with children to provide a happy memory in what can be a confusing time, Farmer said.
There is a large room with tables for games, puzzles and crafts, plus a media room for game play. The clubhouse also has a room with gifts for children of all ages, birth through older teens – including things like stuffed animals, toys and games, and self-care products.
The interior is decorated in soft, colorful hues with modern furnishings and plenty of comfortable places to sit.
Farmer said she started a conversation with the Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services to discuss the gaps that exist.
“We really wanted to open up the clubhouse to make it a community building for our child welfare community, not just a building that we are using for our own program,” she said.
What it means
Dan Piddington said the CASA mission is personal to him and his wife.
“I know how systems work and how important it is if a child can have CASA with them,” he said. “It’s a long process.”
He said the new headquarters allows CASA to hire more group leaders who can work with more volunteers as they advocate for children in the courts, and the new clubhouse lets kids meet privately in a space where they are more likely to open up to them.
Piddington said it took a long time for his grandson to feel settled.
“We had Noah for three years, and the first year he had a backpack with toilet paper and snacks and everything underneath his bed,” he said. “It’s just hard, that part. It took him about eight months before he decided that he wasn’t going to have to go somewhere else.”
Now, Noah understands that he is home, and Piddington is determined to give both him and his brother a better chance at life – the kind of chance CASA volunteers help to provide.
“I’m hoping the story gets out so people get to know what CASA really is,” he said. “It’s so important for them to understand that they’re helping these kids through a long journey that is painful.
“I think it’s going to help them to realize that they are cared for.”
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