Patricia Walter sees nowhere near the number of children she did much of her adult life, first as a mother, then as a preschool teacher and later as a daycare center operator.
But since declaring herself retired two years ago, her pace has been anything but relaxed. The 55-year-old South Toledo woman became trained as a Lucas County CASA volunteer, immersing herself in the unpleasant, stressful task of investigating custody battles that often involve abused and neglected children.
Mrs. Walter was recognized for her efforts earlier this month, when she became the first CASA volunteer from Lucas County to receive the Rising Star Award from the Ohio CASA Association. That award is given annually to the person deemed the state's most outstanding CASA volunteer with fewer than two years of experience. An award also is given each year to the state's most outstanding CASA veteran.
Those who know of her dedication aren't surprised. They can't help but gush as they describe how much of an inspiration she has been, not just to the county's 150 CASA volunteers, but to the children they represent.
“She's relentless,” said Anita Levin, who nominated Mrs. Walter for the award. Ms. Levin, Lucas County CASA associate director, said she also admires Mrs. Walter because she is a creative thinker and because she won't be intimidated by the system.
“She just doesn't give up,” agreed Carol Martin, executive director.
“She has such a strong love for children and wants to make a difference in their lives,” said Carol Hitt, her CASA mentor.
“She's tenacious,” said Judy Leb, the group's recruitment and training director.
Although CASA members are understandably limited in terms of what they can say about custody battles, they said they were particularly impressed by Mrs. Walter's commitment to help one particular teen. “She didn't prevail on the first or second try. It was like the third or fourth,” Ms. Levin said.
Mrs. Walter's creativity and fortitude have represented CASA well, they said, explaining that the result has provided some children with better placement arrangements than they might have otherwise received.
CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. Volunteers investigate abuse allegations that surround the cases they've been assigned.
Mrs. Walter is a mother of three and grandmother of seven. She operated a daycare center off Anthony Wayne Trail for 15 years. She heard tales about some of Toledo's most destitute neighborhoods from her husband, Joe Walter, a former deputy fire chief who now serves as the city's safety director. The couple has lived in Toledo for 32 years.
But little of that prepared Mrs. Walter for what she would see as a CASA volunteer, including the myriad problems that exist for children when one or both of their parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“It has really opened my eyes. There are so many kids out there who could get lost in the system,” she said.
Her empathy is drawn from the knowledge that she has had a good life. She said she knows that life will always be a struggle for some children who CASA represents. “It infuriates me, because it should be fair,” she said.
Like other types of volunteer work, success isn't easy to measure. It's best gauged by a feeling in the heart.
“By far what gives me the most satisfaction is knowing I could do something for a child that might not have been done if I didn't get involved,” Mrs. Walter said.
Founded in 1980, Lucas County's CASA program was the nation's third. Its 150 CASA volunteers are among 70,000 nationwide. Volunteers represent children taken out of their homes because of circumstances that jeopardized their safety.
Juvenile courts use recommendations by CASA advocates to help decide where abused or neglected children should be placed. The demand for their services is high: Fewer than two of five local custody cases have a CASA volunteer. The rest are assigned to court-appointed attorneys, Ms. Martin said.
The agency is careful not to overburden CASA volunteers. It usually does not allow Mrs. Walter or others to have more than two cases pending at a time, to make sure they have time to adequately prepare themselves in court for each child they represent.
“They're invaluable to the courts and to these kids,” Ms. Martin said.