By Kyle LoJacono
Most programs that help children, such as Toys for Tots and the Make a Wish Foundation, are well known, but just as supportive is Florida’s Guardian ad Litem Program.
“Being a volunteer with Guardian ad Litem is what I’m most proud of,” said Vonnie Mikkelsen, Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce executive director. “I’ve volunteered with Pasco (County) Animal Services and with other programs, but Guardian ad Litem is what is the most rewarding and probably most important because it helps helpless kids.”
Mikkelsen has volunteered with the program for nearly three years and currently lives in Land O’ Lakes.
GAL is a statewide program where volunteers collaborate with program staff and attorneys to represent the best interests of abused or neglected children. The volunteer checks on them at least once a month and is present at court hearings and other meetings regarding the child’s case. Guardians interview the people closest to the children and make recommendations to the court from what they find.
“A guardian works with a professional staff and an attorney to ensure that a child has a safe, caring and stable environment,” said Marco Sandusky, GAL area coordinator for Pasco and Pinellas counties. “The court system decides if a volunteer should be appointed for each case of a neglected or abused child.”
Pasco and Pinellas counties are part of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, which has 150 volunteers helping nearly 3,000 children. Sandusky said about 600 of those kids are from Pasco.
“The Sixth Circuit is one of the largest in the state and Pasco has many children in need of a guardian,” Sandusky said. “There are two dependency judges for Pasco. Lynn Tebber is in Dade City and William Webb in New Port Richey. Either of them can recommend that a guardian be appointed in a case.”
Sandusky said more than half the children in abuse cases in Pasco receive a GAL volunteer.
Volunteers are allowed to work with either one family at a time, or take on as many as they feel they can handle. It is against GAL policy to discuss any single situation in specifics, but volunteers can speak of their experiences.
“I’ve worked with as many as five families at once, but that was after being in the program for a couple years,” said Vince Rieger, GAL volunteer in Dade City. “The reason I do it is because I have very strong feelings about protecting kids. There’s no way I’d stop being a guardian.”
Rieger has been a volunteer for nearly four years. He got into the program soon after he retired as an electrical technician.
“There are two hard things about the program though,” he continued. “The first is when the court closes the case, we aren’t supposed to have any contact with the children because they need to move on with their lives. That’s hard after working with a child for a year or more. The other is you can’t bring your ideas of what a normal family should be because you have to deal with many difficult situations.”
Rieger is not just an average guardian. He is also the 2009 GAL volunteer of the year.
“That was huge and very humbling because there are a lot of dedicated volunteers,” Rieger said. “It was incredible to stand with all the volunteers chosen to represent their circuit.”
Mikkelsen also received an award for her work with GAL. She was the Pasco County GAL volunteer of the month in August 2008.
Volunteer qualifications are not overly strict.
“If you are 19 years of age or older, have common sense, good judgment and a heart with the room to help one of these children, you could become a guardian,” said Yvonne Marrone, volunteer recruiter and community outreach coordinator for GAL in Hillsborough County. “This volunteer work is vitally important to creating a successful future for the child helped.”
Hillsborough is the 13th Judicial Circuit. Sandusky said the program’s standards are the same across the state, and guardians average volunteering six to 10 hours a month.
To be a volunteer, people must attend a five-week, 30-hour training course, which gives background in child welfare and working with families. There are three training seasons each year in Pasco, one of which is going on now in Land O’ Lakes that will end Feb. 13. People cannot join a class while it is in progress.
“The program always needs volunteers, and it can be daunting at first,” Mikkelsen said. “It is normal to doubt yourself. I know I did, but guardians are usually the one stable thing in these kids’ lives.”
For more information on becoming a volunteer in Pasco, call (352) 521-5178 or (727) 834-3493 or visit www.guardianadlitem6.org. For Hillsborough, call (813) 272-5110, e-mail or visit www.vfcgal.org.
Upcoming training in Pasco County
Monday and Wednesday evenings May 10 to June 6 at Marchman Technical Education Center, 7825 Campus Drive in New Port Richey