Tuesday, Apr 9, 2019
How My CASA Changed My Life
By Deborah Rutledge
When I was little, I thought my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world – she was like Julia Robert’s in Pretty Woman – flowing hair, big smile and silly laugh. A favorite memory is my mother singing “You are My Sunshine” as she tucked me into bed.
One day this all changed. It was like an alien had taken my mom and replaced her with something dark and sad. I later came to know that these were the symptoms of schizophrenia and depression.
This change became apparent during a fun family outing to Pier 39. My mother turned to her boyfriend and me and casually stated that she wanted to jump off the pier to commit suicide. This pattern of her taking me someplace, even asking me to assist her in committing suicide happened repeatedly.
One day, as I left school, my mother’s boyfriend was there to pick me up. My mother was in the car. He told me that he had to go to work, so he wanted to drop me and my mother off at a motel and have me watch her so that she would not hurt herself. She ran away shortly after he dropped us off and instead of chasing her like I normally did, I walked back into the school building, went to my geography teacher and said that I did not want to go home. From there my life changed entirely. I was 13 years old.
I had hoped that this action would incent my mother to seek help, but because of her mental health, she was not able to. I ended up in foster care living in a group home with 10 other teenagers.
Being in foster care is tough. I do not remember much about that time, only that I had felt so alone, so abandoned. That is, until I met Karen, my CASA.
What I remember about Karen was her smile, her encouragement and her positivity; there was never any judgment about my situation. We spent time doing simple things: walking her dogs, doing homework, playing air hockey. She took me to the ocean for the first time, to the revolving restaurant at the Hyatt in San Francisco and to the Jelly Belly factory. We spent a lot of time just driving around and listening to music. At the time I was really into Nelly Furtado and, bless her heart, Karen let me sing as loud and off key as I wanted.
Most importantly, Karen provided moments of relief during a very dark time. She let me know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That this is just a rough patch and it’s not the end. The mozzarella sticks we’d get at Applebee’s also helped!
There was, however, one thing about Karen that bugged me - she would not let me swear. Gosh darn!
I am one of the fortunate ones. Karen worked with my social worker and attorney to find my biological father – he was living in Salt Lake City. I had not seen him since I was ten when he and my mom split up. Karen made it possible for me to visit him and his new family – a place that I felt I finally belonged. The judge awarded custody to my father and I was able to be part of a family again.
Karen made sure that I had closure with my mother and favorite teacher. She even got my mother and father to have a cordial conversation on the phone before I moved to Salt Lake.
As I mentioned, I am one of the lucky ones. I have my father and siblings; my mother is doing much better now. She is medicated and well taken care of and we speak weekly.
How did this experience affect my career and school aspirations later in life?
I took my experiences and used them for inspiration to earn my bachelor’s degree in sociology. I became a CASA and advocated for teenagers, spreading the strength and compassion that Karen has taught me over the years.
I speak to you now not as the scared kid that didn’t know which way to turn, but as the strong adult that my mentor Karen Scussel helped me become. I am a fighter, survivor, and giver -proudly serving as Technical Sargent Deborah Rutledge in our great United States Air Force.
I have been asked what having a CASA did for me.
Being removed from your parent’s care and placed in an uncertain environment makes it easy to execute poor decisions that can lead to a life of darkness.
That’s why are CASA’s so important. As a CASA, the most important thing to do when a person is surrounded by darkness and going through the most difficult time in their life, is to provide moments of relief. These moments of relief are the definitive changes that can make or break that person in the future.
Just being there for a child, even for short periods of time, gives that child hope, regardless of they’re going through. CASAs provide that bright spot, those moments of relief that change children’s lives and give them the momentum to move forward when everything else in their mind tells them to stop trying.
As donors, you are the voice and the heart of hope against the monsters that they see. You are heroes to the children that cannot defend themselves.
Thank you for supporting more children and youth like me – making sure we do not get lost, that we have that bright light to guide us and show us that life can be positive.