Today's column is a Volunteer Spotlight in which child advocate Linda Jentsch responds to questions relating to her work as a volunteer. Linda taught high school physical education in Illinois for 35 years and coached high school sports for about 25 years.
When she retired from teaching in 2000, she was a snowbird for a few years, coming to Florida for a few months in the winter. In 2005, Linda made the decision to move to Bradenton permanently. The first year was what she had dreamed of, playing golf and tennis, making new friends, and enjoying life.
Eventually Linda started thinking that she needed to find some activity to give something back. She learned about the Guardian ad Litem program from some of her tennis friends and it fit what she was seeking: a way to help children. Linda has been involved in the Guardian ad Litem program for six years.
Q: What motivated you to become a guardian ad litem volunteer?
A: Being a part of this program was exactly what I was looking for, a great way to give something back to the community. I have always enjoyed working with children.
Q: How would you describe your role as a GAL volunteer?
A: The purpose of being a Guardian ad Litem is to advocate for the best interest of each child. The children who are found to be dependent and removed from their parent's care because of abuse, neglect, or abandonment, are not in that situation by choice. Their world has been thrown out of kilter and they need help adjusting, and at the same time kept safe and secure in a place as close to a real home as possible.
The job of a Guardian ad Litem is to make sure all of the needs of the children are being met, and to make recommendations as to what to do to help these children grow and succeed in their lives, and to try to find the best permanent situation possible for each child.
Each time I accept a new case, I can't wait to meet the child and make sure they are safe, and have enough clothing, food, a warm bed to sleep in, are being cared for in a loving way. I feel this sense of urgency to make sure they are OK, until I have seen them with my own eyes.
Q: Do you feel like you are supported in your advocate role?
A: There are many people on the Guardian ad Litem team. There are the volunteers who may be supported by mentors or team leaders. These are more experienced Guardians who help, advise and discuss, especially first cases with new Guardians right out
of training. There are supervisors and staff in the Guardian ad Litem program to help volunteers find answers, programs or ways to meet the needs of the children. There are also special attorneys on the Guardian ad Litem team that keep us all advised as to legal matters and steps that can be recommended for the children to make their lives more stable, safe and successful.
All of these members of the Guardian ad Litem team have one goal: to help children.
Q: As a GAL have you seen any progress on your case?
A: Every case is different, but there are many people that can help a child who is found to be dependent. There are case workers, counselors, educators, tutors, medical doctors and foster parents, all of these and more in addition to the Guardian ad Litem team. Cases usually last about one year. Parents have one year with the help of many providers, services, case workers, counselors, and others to complete their case plan and get their lives in a better, healthier, and safer place for their children. The goal is always to reunify families so they can be together again. Ultimately, this is the parent's responsibility.
Q: What are the frustrations and challenges you have encountered?
A: For the vast majority of the cases I have worked on, the parents seem to love their children and the children love their parents or their caregivers. The frustrations and challenges come in every case, when parents do not succeed or children have a hard time adjusting, or children have a really difficult time overcoming their experiences, or the search for a loving home takes a long time.
Q: Do you have difficulty becoming too emotionally attached to the children in your role as an advocate?
A: Truthfully, I fall in love with the children in every case I work on. The children are definitely the reason I am a Guardian ad Litem, each child is so special in their own way. The best thing a Guardian can do is to be encouraging and stay "in the moment" while looking for the best permanent solution for each child.
Q: How does being a volunteer fit with the rest of your life?
A: Being a Guardian ad Litem right now is a big chunk of my life. When I think about the children in dependency, it is hard to say "No, I don't have time to help a child." I can't say no when a child is hurting and sad because his life has been interrupted by some really tough circumstances beyond his control. I still play tennis, and golf, and participate at my church, but I feel a responsibility to these children to do what I can to make their lives a little better, to give them a voice.
Q: Would you encourage others to volunteer?
A: Absolutely yes!