“There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home!” You probably just envisioned Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz squeezing her eyes shut and clicking her heels together, wishing to return home to Kansas. While Dorothy was longing for her actual home, “home” unfortunately does not always exist for a child. The Guardian ad Litem Program understands and embodies this, which is why “No Place Like Home” was recently the theme of the 3rd Annual Voices of Hope GALa, held on October 6th at The Omni Resort at Championsgate.
The Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) Program provides volunteers to children who are removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. There are currently over 35,000 children in the state of Florida who are abused or neglected, and of these 28,000 are in Dependency Court. Osceola County alone has over 500 children currently in our Dependency system, and of those there are 150 who do not have a volunteer GAL assigned to their case.
So, what exactly is a GAL and what do they do for these children? Well, a GAL becomes a champion for their child. Children who are placed in foster care often move from home to home. When a child has a GAL they know they have a constant person in their life-someone who can be their rock, no matter how many foster homes they go through or how many case workers they are assigned. GALs are an advocate for the child in both court and the community, helping to ensure they are receiving assistance and support and keeping their best interests at heart while also serving as a mentor and a role model. Alan Abramowitz, Executive Director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program, is quoted on the GAL Osceola website stating “We can all work to pave a positive path to a child’s future of hope and emotional security. Making a positive difference in the life of a child is one definition of legacy.”
Voices for Osceola Children, founded in 1991, along with its generous supporters, helps to financially support the volunteer efforts. The annual Voices of Hope GALa serves as their fundraiser to raise both money and awareness within the community. This year, there were over 450 people in attendance. DeAnna Gassert stated “This year’s theme “There’s No Place Like Home” was very special to us, because not all of our children find their forever home.”. The amount of time, planning, effort, and passion which went into coordinating the Voices of Hope GALa was both evident and astounding. The night began with testimonies of children who have been forever positively impacted by the GAL program, speaking of how their GAL influenced their life, gave them a voice within the court system, and made sure that they knew without a doubt that they matter and that they are important. In addition to the glimpse into how valuable the GAL program is, the night consisted of a delicious dinner, an abundance of silent auction items, and a casino area with blackjack, roulette, and poker tables where you played for the chance to win raffle tickets to enter to win anything from trips to places such as Panama and Antigua, to massages, to tickets to various theme parks and attractions (and so much more). Thanks to the enormous dedication of the volunteers and generous sponsors, the event raised over $120,000 this year. 100% of the proceeds go to Voices for Osceola’s Children 501c3, directly benefitting the foster children in the GAL program. In addition to raising vital funds, the GALa brought a new wave of awareness to the Guardian ad Litem program and the impact just one person can have on the life of a child, right here within our own community. Vanessa Bauknight, Assistant Director of the Guardian ad Litem Program, said “We are so grateful to the Voices for Osceola’s Children and the community for coming together and supporting the GAL Program and the abused, abandoned, and neglected children we represent.”.
The hardworking committee of volunteers who poured their hearts and souls into making the event a raging success consisted of Holly LaRosa, DeAnna Gassert, Tawnie McMorrow, Jena Threadgill, Marcy Theobald, Tiffany Licata, Courtney Daniels, Lauren Ingram, Justina Bauknight, Tina Campbell, Sue Vasquez, Leslie Hanna, Vanessa Bauknight, and Lesley Scott. Their tireless work and dedication combined with the support and generosity of the event sponsors was evident and heartwarming.
Interested in becoming a GAL? To do so, you must be at least 21 years old, pass a criminal background screening, complete 30 hours of training, and make a commitment of at least one year. There is no experience necessary, and as a GAL you must make a minimum of one visit every thirty days. On average it only takes about 5-7 hours of your time per month, and in return you get to reach out to a child and touch their life forever. For an application or brochure, you can visit galosceola.org. For additional GALa information, pictures, and sponsorship opportunities you can visit voicesofhopegala.com, and like the Voices for Osceola’s Children, Inc. Facebook page.