CASA holds themed fund-raiser at F.M. Kirby Center to aid advocacy efforts


By Mary Therese Biebel - | October 1st, 2017 11:18 am

WILKES-BARRE — When fans of the 1942 film “Casablanca” stepped into the Kirby Center lobby on Thursday evening, they may have felt as if they really had entered Rick’s Cafe Americain.

Images of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman decorated the space, along with Moroccan-style lanterns, vintage suitcases, sumptuous food and drink, and, of course, gaming tables.

Emcee Rabbi Larry Kaplan even led guests in singing a few lines from “As Time Goes By,” the song Sam the pianist famously plays in the movie.

But there was a more serious similarity too.

Behind the “gin-joint” exterior of his cafe, the classic film’s seemingly cynical American expatriate, Rick, quietly made sure refugees would obtain the exit visas or letters of transit they needed to escape the horrors of World War II.

And, behind the convivial atmosphere, roulette table and craps games of Thursday’s $95-per-ticket event, supporters of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children were eager to help local children escape the horrors of abuse and neglect.

Addressing the crowd of about 300, CASA volunteer Anne Ellis, of Clarks Summit, told the story of a 9-year-old boy who had been beaten so badly by a family member that his teacher called 911 when he came to school.

When Ellis first met the boy, she said, he had no reason to trust her or like her.

“He would do a backward handstand on a couch just so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact,” she said.

But she eventually gained his trust and, during the past few years of visiting with him at least once a month, she has watched him blossom.

“He knows if I say I will be there, I will,” she said. “If he calls, I will answer.”

Ellis has spent time with the boy to get to know him, and she has been his advocate, looking out for his best interests as she consulted with his teachers, caseworker and therapist.

As she watched him play baseball, she recalled seeing him encounter a wild turkey in the outfield and chase it as any carefree child might.

“That’s it!” she told herself, realizing this was a sign of success. “He’s happy!”

Ellis said she expects the youngster will soon be adopted “by his very loving foster mother” and then Ellis will become an advocate for another child — one of the many who need an adult to speak on their behalf.

Thanking those who already support CASA, executive director John Aciukewicz said there is a great need for more advocates.

According to statistics published on the program, the local CASA has provided advocates for 120 children since 2013, and there are approximately 400 children in foster care in Luzerne Count who still need them.

Anyone interested in learning more about an upcoming training program can call the CASA office at 570-855-2247. An information session is planned for Oct. 11.

“I believe we all can make a difference,” said CASA volunteer Karen Holcomb, of Kingston, who is an advocate watching out for a local 3-year-old and 5-year-old.

Holcomb is a therapist and social worker, but stressed people from all occupations and walks of life can become advocates.

If you don’t feel called to become an advocate, Ellis said, there are other ways to help — from volunteer office work to inviting a CASA representative to speak to your organization to giving your employees the latitude to devote time to advocacy. She thanked her own employer, attorney Eugene D. Sperazza, for whom she works as paralegal and office manager, for giving her that flexibility.