Earlier this month, CASA moved into a building it recently purchased and renovated at 725 N. Second Street. More than twice the size of the rental unit that has housed the organization since 2008, the new North Lawrence location provides an office for every staff member and ample gathering space for activities and events.
This exciting transition is spearheaded by Executive Director Erick Vaughn. “CASA’s mission is to find a safe, permanent home for kids. We now have the same for ourselves,” says Erick. In this Q&A, he shares how the building acquisition will enable CASA to serve even more children and families, build meaningful partnerships with other service providers, and deepen the organization’s impact in the community.
How did owning a physical space become part of the vision for CASA’s future?
In 2019, the CASA Board of Directors hired me to grow the organization, and at the heart of that growth is the people who provide our services to children in need. Pretty quickly after I started, however, it became clear we were shoehorned in everywhere at our office on New Hampshire Street. I was struggling to imagine where new staff members would work as we brought them on, and in early 2021, the Board formed a property committee to prioritize that conversation.
Around that time we also learned that William (Bill) Dann — a longtime, major supporter of CASA — had passed away, leaving the organization $1.2M. This incredible gift allowed us to expand our thinking and articulate a “dream” scenario for the organization — owning a space that could not only accommodate more staff, but aso activities and collaborations with peer organizations. We ultimately decided that with resources unexpectedly available to fund a down payment, purchasing a building as opposed to leasing one was the best path to advancing CASA’s mission.
How will having a permanent home further CASA’s mission? How do you envision the space contributing to the organization's growth and community impact?
First of all, our staff is amazing, and they deserve to have a quality workspace. Giving everyone their own office is a way to honor their work and say, “Thank you.” Every team member now and in the future will have a place to do their job — including the invaluable volunteers who help out with administrative tasks.
We also now have the capacity to host CASA meetings and events. We have many partners in the community — the Lawrence Public Library, and others — who have generously hosted our board meetings over the years. Going forward, we have our own space to convene the CASA community for volunteer training, kids’ activities, donor appreciation events, fundraisers, and other gatherings. For example, I can see us hosting staff retreats for our business sponsors, including those that facilitate employee contributions to CASA. I would love to be able to walk down our hallway and say hello, get to know those people, and answer any questions they might have about our work and the impact of their donations.
We currently have enough space to rent a few of our space offices to attorneys, therapists, and other service providers connected to child advocacy. However, I envision that one day — after we’ve met our goal of growing to serve every child who needs a CASA — we’ll launch a capital campaign to expand our office space into an adjacent warehouse space to serve as a hub for partner agencies and other nonprofit organizations. I am inspired by some of the shared service models for early childhood education I have seen succeed in other communities, such as Liberal, Kansas. There, the school district serves as the hub and single destination for kids to access not only high-quality education, but also medical care, mental health, and other services.
What are your fundraising priorities at this time, and how are you working to meet those goals?
With the donation from Mr. Dann and leadership gifts from our board members, Sunderland Foundation and other supporters, we have raised $925,000 of our $1M goal for the capital campaign, which includes purchase and renovation of the building. Our other fundraising priority is to steadily grow our annual budget from $750,000 to $1M over the next few years, which is the amount we need to sustain general operations and related activity. In November we are launching a strategic planning process to map out how we can scale growth over the next few years to achieve that $250K increase in the annual budget.
Most people are very supportive of our building purchase, but there is a pervasive idea in the United States that nonprofits have to “do without.” The way I see it, we are operating within the capitalist system, and we now have an asset we will use to further our mission and directly help more children in need. It takes $5,000 to provide one volunteer advocate for a child for a year, and we are trying to grow from serving 100 kids at any given time to serving 200 kids—that is the need currently in Douglas County. Now we are positioned to use increased funding to serve more children in our community who are struggling — that is an important link we can help funders make.
The capital campaign has been a great opportunity to get in front of new people. A key piece to our efforts is developing relationships, finding out what an individual’s passions are, helping them get to know us on a deeper level, and then engaging them as supporters. We are serving what is essentially a hidden population in Douglas County. The building acquisition has been an important tool for telling our story and building awareness so we can make an even greater impact.
What is your “why” for serving CASA? What keeps you motivated in this work?
What motivates me most is the kids’ success stories, and the impact our volunteers have long-term in the life of a child. I also love it when volunteer advocates have “Aha!” moments, as they grow to better understand the population we work with and the issues they are facing. I’m also uplifted by the generosity and commitment of our donors. Their contributions are essential to the hard, necessary work it takes to achieve incremental success over the long-term.
I also inherited an amazing team of people for whom this is not just a job. Working at CASA is something they are called to do. Everyone on the staff is focused on the wellness of those around them, we are a team. What we do wouldn’t be possible without a safe environment to be yourself and experience the range of emotions that come with this work. We support and motivate one another every day, and being part of that is wonderful.