Guardian program seeks volunteers to mentor kids

jzou@heraldonline.comAugust 28, 2013 

At the end of a 55-hour work week teaching fifth-graders at Ebinport Elementary School in Rock Hill, Jane Parrish still finds time to volunteer as a guardian for children in troubled families throughout South Carolina.

“I believe it takes a village, and I’m just trying to be part of the village,” said Parrish, who has volunteered with the Cass Elias McCarter Guardian ad Litem Program for seven years.

The program pairs up adult volunteers with children going through foster care or the child welfare system. Guardians meet with the children, their parents, social workers and even doctors, and report back to judges in Family Court.

The program is looking for a new crop of volunteers at an upcoming training session in Rock Hill that starts Tuesday.

Wendi Rodgers, a public awareness and training coordinator at Cass Elias, said that the main requirements to becoming a guardian is that you have a heart for children, are able to pass a background check and complete a free, 30-hour training course.

Rodgers said that she hopes the upcoming training course will draw a few dozen volunteers from York, Lancaster and Chester counties, and emphasized the overall need for more guardians in the state.

In the last fiscal year, there were 125 volunteers in the program serving 358 children. The program is a division of the state governor’s office of executive policy and programs.

“Our children need a voice,” Rodgers said. “We try to be there for that child at the start of that case till the end of the case.”

Parrish was hesitant about volunteering when she first heard about the program at a public presentation seven years ago, but felt compelled to join when she couldn’t get the idea out of her head.

“I took that as God’s way of nudging me,” she said. “Every child in South Carolina deserves to have a guardian ad litem, somebody that’s just there for them.”

Parrish said the idea behind being a guardian is to be the judge’s eyes and ears and advocate for what the child wants. It often means driving out to meet the child once a month, appearing in court on the child’s behalf, and putting together detailed reports on the child’s progress.

“It’s like having another full-time job,” Parrish said, who has spent her life surrounded by children as a mother of two and has taught at Ebinport Elementary for 30 years.

While the time input can be high, she said that she gets more out of it than she puts in, especially when she sees families reunited. She estimates she spends several hours a week meeting and working with the children she’s assigned to who live in various counties in the Upstate.

Volunteers do not receive compensation for their work and may be assigned to several children from the same family at once.

The bulk of children in Family Court are not allowed into the courtrooms where decisions are made, and while guardians report to the judge, they are not paid by the court or have a direct stake in the case.

“You’ve got to have the capacity to stay neutral,” said Parrish, recalling particularly tough cases that involve child abuse and neglect. She said being a guardian can become emotionally taxing when she gets attached to the children.

Rodgers said she hopes to broaden the program’s reach in terms of numbers of volunteers as well as the diversity of the volunteers to reflect the diversity of the children in the program.

Current volunteers run the gamut from former and current educators, to financiers and retirees.

The next training session begins Tuesday at The Freedom Center in Rock Hill. For information, contact the program’s York office at 803-327-9997 or visit www.scgal.org to apply.

Jie Jenny Zou 803-329-4062

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