AP NEWS

New CASA director anxious to fulfill her passion

February 27, 2019

At the Boots and Bandanas fundraiser in Dayton Saturday night, Kimberly Stephens and her husband Eric took in the sights and sounds of a Texas-size fundraiser.

From the dancing, to the auction, to the western attire, Stephens found herself in the middle of a community she saw as caring and invested.

The newly selected executive director of the Liberty/Chambers County court-appointed special advocate said she believed her arrival was ordered by steps from God that led her to the doorstep of the office at 2015 Scout Street.

“Nine months ago, a year ago, things that were happening while I was at (Child Protective Services) absolutely lined up every step to wind up where I am today,” she said.

Her journey as an educator and pastor’s wife brought her to Texas from Florida and Tennessee. Her husband accepted a position as associate pastor at Conroe First Assembly of God where they both minister in the church.

Stephens previously had been a school teacher for 15 years in public ed and administration in Tennessee, Florida, and Maryland.

“When we moved to Texas about a year-and-a-half ago, I made the transition into social services,” she said.

In Florida, the CPS system is structured differently — educational neglect falls under the CPS umbrella, and it’s handled bilaterally between the school system and CPS.

She began working as a school-based liaison, which is basically the same as CASA volunteers.

“When I made the transition, I made a prayerful choice that I’d like to know more about the system as a whole. I felt like there were some changes that needed to be made,” she said.

But before she could make any suggestions for change, Stephens felt like she needed to be right in the middle of it all to gain knowledge.

“I accepted a position with CPS here in Liberty and Chambers County,” she said.

She fell in love with the community and after working with CPS, the door to move into CASA and work for them opened. It was a partnership on the other side of the table.

“I was absolutely thrilled because I have a heart for this community,” she said.

Stephens met her husband while attending Lee University, a private Church of God Christian university in Cleveland, Tennessee. She earned her master’s degree at Lincoln Memorial University, a private liberal arts college in Harrogate, Tennessee and later a doctorate at the Valdosta campus of the University of Georgia.

“We were pastoring in Florida at the time and I would drive back and forth across the state line to finish both of those degrees (masters and doctorate),” she said.

Education has always been her passion. Stephens said she loves working with students and families.

“I felt compelled to work with families,” she said, and her dissertation work took her deeper into the family unit and the ways minorities and immigrants interact with the education system.

“All of those articulate well by folding into education and then the child welfare system. It’s a smooth one since they complement each other and ultimately lead to one another,” she said.

She said she has been privileged to work with educators who have a heart for kids.

“I’ve never encountered an attitude with a teacher who wasn’t willing to go above and beyond to meet the needs of a family,” she said.

“As a caseworker, I took particular interest in partnering with teachers. They are mandated reporters and I do believe they do to the best of their ability to fulfill their requirement for reporting,” she said.

“I also feel like you get the best information when you have a partnership. Plus, they offer a perspective that we don’t have because they’re with them eight hours per day.”

Stephens praised the work done by former executive director Debbie Dugger.

“She did a phenomenal job laying groundwork. I respect the path that has been laid. I get to stand on the foundation that was laid before me and that allows me to go to the next level of the organization,” Stephens said.

She was also highly complimentary of the staff who she says brings a wealth of experience and diverse backgrounds and knowledge to the table.

“We come together as a team and the creativity and passion is explosive and contagious,” she said.

“I left our meeting last week buzzing with excitement because of the passion they bring in each day to this work,” she said of her staff.

While they are publicly funded by grant money through private foundations and federal money that is funneled through Texas CASA, the success of the banquet and live auction are key to their being able to meet the needs of their clients.

“We also receive funds from the Victims of Crime Act and Crime Victims Compensation for working with children who have experienced bad stuff,” she said.

As one of the largest volunteer organizations in the nation, CASA has a volunteer workforce that basically gets paired with children that are involved in the child welfare system.

“They’re appointed by the judge to work with the family and child. They are the eyes and ears of the judge. They go into the home or placement and into the schools and make sure that the child’s needs are being met while they’re involved with the child welfare system,” she said.

Stephens said a volunteer can be a stabilizing force if the child is involved in a lot of placements.

Being involved in church ministry, Stephens said CASA is a program that is close to her heart.

“And I also believe close to God’s heart,” she added.

Funds raised at the annual banquet will be totaled and announced in the coming days, but Stephens pointed out that tax deductible donations can be made at anytime of the year through Facebook or their website or dropping by the office with a check.

“We’re thankful for all of the support from our community,” she said.

dtaylor@hcnonline.com