Nonprofit leader addresses national issues at local level

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Jamie Campbell, executive director of CASA for Kids of Flathead County, stands outside the organization’s office in Kalispell on Wednesday, Sept. 4. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

Jamie Campbell has been working for children essentially since she was a child herself.

Starting at age 14, the executive director of CASA for Kids of Flathead County has helped hundreds of at-risk children in the Flathead Valley and across the Pacific Northwest. “I’m passionate about them,” she said.

CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocates — is a national organization that provides volunteer advocates for children in the foster-care system. Its website explains, “in Flathead County, CASA for Kids recruits, trains and supports everyday citizens to advocate for foster children.”

Campbell clarified the role of these advocates: “the court appoints someone to gather information for someone, in this scenario for children in foster care. Based on all the information that that person gathers, they make a decision about what they think is in the child’s best interest and then they present that information to the judge, so that the judge has that independent investigation.”

Campbell took over the local CASA organization in 2004.

“They offered me the job and I held off taking it,” she admitted, despite decades of preparation working with foster children.

The nonprofit leader started serving children as a young teenager in Washington state. At 14, she volunteered in a daycare facility for at-risk children, and by her early 20s she was fostering children in addition to her own. “From then on, I had lots of kids,” Campbell recalled.

That initial experience morphed into more than a decade of foster parenting, over which time Campbell estimated she helped care for approximately 80 children.

“I was just passionate,” she stated. She held numerous professional positions in this field as well, including teaching preschool and training other foster parents before joining CASA of Flathead County as a volunteer advocate in 2002.

“I was so impressed,” with CASA, she said, after her many years of foster care experience.

The national program started in 1978 and came to the Flathead Valley in 2000. In its fledgling days, Campbell remembered, “we were basically supporting volunteers.” The program has since increased in size and scope under Campbell’s leadership.

“Back then, the program was very small,” she said. “I think when I came on we had maybe 25 advocates, and now we have 108.” She remembered several years ago when they first hit the benchmark of 200 children in the program for a year: “I had never really imagined hitting 200. That was very high.”

Last year, she reported there were 304 children with CASA advocates in Flathead County, and they are currently on track to meet or exceed that number by the end of 2019.

As executive director, Campbell has also overseen the expansion of the services they offer and their local reach. Beyond their initial mission of “supporting volunteers,” CASA of Flathead County now offers more comprehensive, broad support.

“Before there was anything formal with [the] national” organization, Campbell and her team “developed a mentoring program” that eventually grew into a nationally utilized coaching system across the CASA network, she said.

In November 2018, the nonprofit organization also branched out into Lincoln County.

“They had been wanting CASA in Lincoln County for a while,” she said. While this new development is currently supported by its Flathead neighbor, she also said they have a three-year plan for Lincoln County with the goal that program will be able to spin off and become its own 501(c)3 nonprofit.

But in Lincoln and Flathead counties, Campbell said CASA faces unique challenges not characteristic of many other CASA programs.

“One of the challenges that we deal with and other programs in rural communities deal with is that we can’t generate the kind of numbers that are appealing to those large grantors,” she explained. Funding sources often consider whether their donation will help a few hundred children in a rural community or a few thousand in a city like Los Angeles, she related.

Another particular problem Campbell said affects local children is methamphetamine use. She remembered the first big spike in local foster children happened with increased meth use around 2008. She said “the numbers skyrocketed.”

Again in 2014, she said “the numbers really spiked and they have not stopped.” As a result, Campbell said, “We always need more volunteers…We have great need in the valley for services…particularly for children.”

After facing these challenges for well over a decade, Campbell remains passionate and forward-thinking in her approach to CASA. The enthusiasm from her teenage years seems in no way diminished as she contemplates CASA’s outlook.

“My most immediate hope is that we could hire another staff person,” she said. Despite its wide purview and extensive list of advocates, CASA of Flathead County only operates with a handful of staff members. “We need [another staff member] to cover caseloads,” Campbell explained.

Campbell also hopes to provide additional services for older children in foster care. She hopes to bring Fostering Futures, a national CASA campaign to teach life skills to foster-care teenagers, to Flathead County.

“We could do so much with that program,” Campbell insisted. “There’s nothing like that in the valley for kids in foster care.”

After working “with foster kids my entire adult life,” she said, “that’s my big dream.”

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at bserbin@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.

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