My name is Jennifer Smith, and I have been on the CASA of Yellowstone County Board of Directors for approximately four years. I more or less invited myself to join the CASA board after learning about CASA through my work with Billings Public Schools. I have been an administrator with Billings Public Schools for the last eight years as the Executive Director of Indian Education, English Language Programming, and SOS Signs of Suicide Prevention Programming. Throughout my entire career as a teacher and administrator, I have always worked with highly at-risk children. Over the years, I have provided a safe place to live for many children of all ages who just kind of ended up in my care as a result of my work, so I felt that I might have something to contribute as a CASA board member. I suppose in many ways, I have spent my career acting as a CASA Advocate in some manner—I just never realized that being a CASA Advocate was actually a “thing”!
About me personally: When I win the lottery, which I’m certain will be happening soon, I’ll be traveling the globe to scuba dive all over the world. I’m headed back to La Paz, Mexico, in December to dive with the sea lions there and log my 50th dive. I love animals (both tame and wild) and know the names of every dog and cat that lives on my street—but can’t remember the names of their owners (my neighbors). With the exception of attending high school and college on the East Coast, I have lived in Billings nearly my entire life—I am a devoted Montanan. I am an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians from Cherokee, North Carolina (my father’s reservation) and a descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians from Belcourt, North Dakota (my mother’s reservation). I have a ridiculous sense of humor that tends to show up at inappropriate times—mostly meetings that could have been an email.
Nearly half of all the children in Yellowstone County foster care are Native American. This statistic breaks my heart. I see our Native students struggle every day trying to find their place in a public school system that has a teaching staff and administration that is less than 1% Native. It’s especially difficult for our Native kids that are coming off of the reservation to an urban setting, and many, many times tougher, when their parents, guardians, and families are battling addiction, poverty, domestic violence, food insecurity, housing insecurity—the list, goes on. For those kids and EVERY child that finds him/herself in the foster system, a CASA Advocate often provides the only solid connection for them from their past to their future, a link from what was to what can be. CASAs are often the only reliable and trustworthy adults these kids have ever had in their lives. Some of these kids have been in and out of the foster system many, many times. For them, their CASA Advocate is often literally the only person they can count on, the only consistent person they have ever had in their life. That’s a game-changer.
I remember the first time someone asked me why I decided to get involved with CASA and, without even needing to think about it, I said I got involved because I couldn’t possibly think of a more worthwhile organization. After all, is there really any cause greater than being the voice for a child who has no one else carrying their story? I consider it a privilege and gift to be able to advocate on behalf of children. To those who are reading this—thank you for also being a part of this effort.
My advice for new Advocates? Lead with your heart, but protect it as well. These children’s stories are heartbreaking, but if we don’t maintain our own boundaries and protect our own mental health and well-being, then we cannot properly advocate for the children. Celebrate and encourage their resiliency.
Emily Gaudreau is the Development Director for CASA of Yellowstone County.