Douglas County, Kansas

Leaving a Legacy of Passion and Commitment: Q&A with Volunteer Supervisor Carolyn Johnson

July 26, 2023

As a volunteer-based organization, one of CASA’s critical administrative roles is our volunteer supervisor — the position responsible for training and providing professional support to individuals giving of their time to serve on the frontlines of child advocacy. 

At Douglas County CASA, our team of six full- and part-time volunteer supervisors helps to organize recruitment events and spread awareness about the organization. They lead intensive training using the National CASA pre-service curriculum to prepare volunteers to be prepared/skilled advocates. They work together to match volunteers with children needing a CASA, offer guidance to our advocates, and ensure the highest level of service is provided to each one of the appointed children in our community.

One of our outstanding volunteer supervisors is Carolyn Johnson, who has been a steward of CASA’s mission since 1999. As she steps down to retire at the end of this year, we bid her a fond farewell with heartfelt gratitude for the significant role she has played in developing and implementing our program goals. In this Q&A, Carolyn discusses how she has maintained her passion and commitment to child advocacy. She also reflects on the organization’s growth throughout the years, and shares what excites her most about its future.

How did you first get involved with CASA? What was your path to becoming a Volunteer Supervisor?

I wanted to be a social worker when I was in college, but my very wise father advised against it. I’m a pretty emotional human and a “rescuer” by nature, and he was worried I’d struggle with boundaries. So I went to law school instead, practiced as an attorney for years, and eventually moved with my family to Lawrence. I took a part-time job teaching a law class at the University of Kansas, which was nourishing for my intellectual side — but I still didn’t feel I was “helping” in the way I’d always wanted. In 1999, I responded to an ad in the Lawrence Journal World and joined the team at CASA in addition to my role at KU. I would later tell my volunteers that teaching was my “head” job, and CASA was my “heart” job.

How has being a CASA Volunteer Supervisor been fulfilling in the ways you were seeking? What are your responsibilities and favorite part of the job?

During my time with CASA I’ve been privileged to have supervised 117 volunteers assigned to over 200 children. The volunteers I inherited when I started with CASA in 1999 taught me so much about the work we do and inspired me with their passion and commitment. Training new volunteers has always been rewarding and a learning experience for me as well. The people who go through our training have very big hearts and are a joy to get to know. Over the years, volunteers have become my friends and family. 

I use my legal expertise to make recommendations and help our volunteers write court reports. I also listen to our volunteers when they need to vent about frustrations. I praise them for their good work, and encourage them to take care of themselves. I help them locate resources for kids and families and plan outings with the kids. My favorite thing to do as a supervisor is go on outings with our volunteers so I can meet and get to know the kids.

What, in your view, makes someone a successful volunteer advocate?

We seek volunteers who genuinely care about the welfare of children and families. Volunteers can navigate these complex familial situations best when they lead with empathy and understanding about how and why parents struggle with poverty, mental health, addiction, and domestic violence. It’s also important that volunteers maintain objectivity and recognize that the law sometimes doesn’t allow for the outcomes we’d like for the kids we serve.

As one who has been involved with CASA’s evolution over more than two decades, how have you witnessed the organization grow?

When I joined CASA, most of our volunteers were retired women who had been recruited by Judge Jean Shepherd. Since then, I’ve seen our volunteer base evolve, and have had a hand in shaping our recruitment strategies. Years ago we formed a relationship with the KU School of Law, and still today a number of our volunteers are law students very invested in CASA's mission. We also began presenting about our volunteer opportunities at PTA meetings, local businesses, churches, and community fairs. We found that parents with children in school between ages 30 and 50 often could find time for volunteer commitments — this demographic now comprises 32% of our volunteer base.  

I’ve also been with CASA through several leadership and office transitions. In 1999, CASA was housed in the turret of the old courthouse at 11th & Massachusetts. In 2008, we moved to an office rental at 1009 New Hampshire. This year, CASA will own its new home at 725 N. 2nd Street. This achievement is spearheaded by Erick Vaughn, our Executive Director since July 2019, who has revolutionized nearly everything we do! Erick has extensive knowledge of the child welfare system and — along with Sarah Hoadley, Development Director — is responsible for significant increases in our funding. He has catapulted us into the digital age, instituting a new database system that is critical to our operations. Erick is incredibly supportive of the staff, ensuring we all feel safe, appreciated, and valued. I’m very confident about what the future holds for CASA under his visionary leadership. 

What else excites you about CASA's future—particularly in light of the recent building acquisition?

Everything! I am particularly excited about the new space from a training perspective. We trained in borrowed spaces until we moved to the New Hampshire Street office in 2008, but there the “large” conference room is dismally dark and very tight quarters for a dozen participants. The new training room at our building in North Lawrence not only has WINDOWS, but convenient kitchen and bathroom access, comfortable seating, and space for flexible table arrangements. 

Furthermore, each staff member will now have an office, and CASA can continue expanding the team. There are still so many kids in Douglas County who need an advocate, and that can’t happen without additional supervisors and support staff. With our move to the new building, CASA is poised to address this need more fully, and that’s wonderful news for our community.

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At any given time, there are 165 children from Douglas County in the child welfare system due to abuse and neglect. Help us help those children who are still waiting for a CASA volunteer.