Debra Smith is finishing up her time as executive director of CASA of the Heartland.
Smith said she plans to stay until a replacement has been found for a smoother transition of her successor and to do what’s best for the children in the program.
Court Appointed Special Advocates of the Heartland is a child advocacy group that recruits, trains and supports volunteers who serve as court-appointed advocates for abused and neglected children under the protection of the Hardin County Family Court.
Smith, 54, has been the director for four years and has been with the program for 10 years.
She began as a volunteer in 2009 with a case involving five children. She then went on to serve a year with the VISA program at CASA, a position that got her out of her comfort zone when having to do public speaking engagements, she said. She was on staff as the volunteer advocate coordinator before becoming executive director.
“I guess I’ve done just about every aspect of this organization that can be done,” she said.
CASA, Smith said, already was doing great things when she was placed at the helm. During her time leader, CASA has increased funding resources, doubled the number of volunteers active for the year, doubled training opportunities and automated paperwork.
The organization also moved into a new office while she was there, but she gave most of the credit for that to others.
“You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with,” she said of her staff who work together to help area children. “We’ll be a part of each other’s lives for some time.”
Smith said the job can sometimes be frustrating, especially when a case doesn’t go the way you think it should for the child. But then she’s sat in court when a case ends with a child finding a loving home and it makes it all worth it.
Volunteer Advocate Coordinator Patti Mayhew said she’s going to miss Smith.
Smith was Mayhew’s advocate coordinator since she was a volunteer and was trained by her in 2012.
With a small staff you become like family, Mayhew said.
“Her knowledge of things that are available to our families and children is very important and really hard to replace,” she said. “She has always looked to the positive side of things, I think that’s what’s so wonderful about her personality.”
Mayhew said Smith’s goal is for everyone’s lives to be better.
“Her positive outlook, the way she welcomes our new advocates and her continual encouragement as we do what’s in the best interest of these children has been first and foremost with her,” she said. “That’s just Debbie.”
Former CASA board chairwoman Patsy Whitehead said she admires Smith’s passion and professionalism.
“She runs the CASA office with that same passion, making sure the staff is equipped with the tools and knowledge they need to do their best for children and advocates,” Whitehead said. “Under Debbie’s leadership, CASA has continued to show a strong presence in our community and school systems.”
Smith, she said, has built relationships with community partners and has incorporated many positive changes during her time, noting doubling training opportunities as an example.
“Debbie’s leadership style includes showing appreciation to others and each CASA volunteer will tell you they always receive a special homemade birthday or thank you card in the mail from Debbie,” Whitehead said. “It’s her personal touch and unique way of letting others know how much they are appreciated.”
Whitehead said Smith’s presence will be missed.
“I have no doubt Debbie will leave a part of her heart with CASA” she said.
Smith said she can see herself returning to volunteer or volunteering with a similar program.
But for now, she’s going to enjoy retired life. She plans to work on some crafting, travel and visit her grandchildren.
The youngest of her seven grandchildren is 4-years-old and she’s been the executive director his whole life.
“I’m looking forward to breaking him out of daycare early a few days to play,” she said.
Smith also is excited about having time to volunteer in other areas, such as with preschool children at Northside Baptist Church.
“I love CASA and believe in the mission and the children we can help,” she said, adding she’s leaving the organization in good hands. “It’s a strong team that knows what they are doing.”