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6 Volunteers Who Make a Big Difference and How You Can, Too

Easy ways to find opportunities and make contacts

You can lend a hand — or your experience or your passions — to help make a difference. Volunteer opportunities are everywhere these days. Here's a fun sampling to get you inspired — and profiles of six people who already have the bug.

See also: Volunteer on vacation.

Thema Harris with Tamika, a teen she guided

Thelma Harris (left) with Tamika, a teen she guided. — John Huba

Thelma Harris — Advocate for Children

Thelma Harris knows what it's like to be a motherless child. She was eight when her mother collapsed while cooking breakfast and died. Harris, now 61, has been trying to compensate for her loss ever since. "My father raised us, and he did the very best job he could," she says, "but there has always been this void."

So when Harris retired in 2005 from the federal government in Fulton County, Ga., the idea of working for a child-advocacy program seemed a perfect way to continue healing herself while helping others struggle with traumatic losses. As a volunteer for the National Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association, Harris assists abused, abandoned or neglected children who are in foster care for their protection, then makes recommendations to the court about how to salvage their futures.

"These are bright, sensitive children," says Harris, who has a grown son and two stepsons of her own. "With most of them, you know that if you nurture them a little bit and give them some love, it will be okay."

Early on, in the extensive training program that CASA runs for its volunteers, Harris observed a court proceeding, watching as distraught young children were wrenched from parents who couldn't afford to heat their home. "It was awful," Harris said. But, she adds, "I was hooked."

With CASA's assistance, volunteers are often able to find resources to aid families in such circumstances, and keep them together. In one case Harris was able to get an asthmatic toddler removed from an unhealthy living situation in foster care and reunited with her newly employed mother. In another case Harris helped two teenage girls who had endured the emotional abuse of a drug-addicted mother; the girls' loving grandmother had died, and Harris shepherded them through their grief and on to college, where they are thriving.

Harris now concentrates on recruiting and fundraising for CASA, which deploys about 200 volunteers in Fulton County for a foster-care system currently clogged with some 3,000 children.

"We are often the only ones who stay with the child from foster home to foster home or group home to group home, through the transitions of case managers and attorneys," she says. "They see so many different people that a CASA volunteer is often the one constant in their life."

And though it's tough work, says Harris, "it really does more for me, I think, than for them, in many cases. Some of these children will be forever in my heart."

How it works. Become a court-appointed advocate for abused and neglected children through the National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Association.
Time it takes.
Thirty hours of training to become a volunteer, then 10 to 20 hours a month for the estimated 18-month length of the child's case.
Go to CASA online or call 800-628-3233.

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