Mandy Zalich didn't always know she wanted to work with children.
As an only child, she didn't have much experience being around other youngsters. "Kids make me nervous," she acknowledged.
But that has changed.
Ms. Zalich loves the job she has been doing since early 2009: serving as director of Court Appointed Special Advocates, often called CASA, in Westmoreland County.
It took a bit of experience to get over her qualms about working with kids, but Ms. Zalich, 32, of Mount Pleasant Township, said she found her niche in overseeing the volunteer-driven organization that supports and advocates in the courts for children suffering from neglect and abuse.
Volunteers with CASA, which has programs all over the country, serve as advocates for children who have been identified through the courts. They meet with biological parents, foster families, counselors, caseworkers and schools to ensure each child is well-represented in court and that the judge has pertinent information.
"Sometimes the CASA is the only one constant in these children's lives. The case worker might change, they may be moved, but the CASA stays the same," said Jeanne Cerce of Unity, who started volunteering with the organization in 2008.
Each volunteer advocate completes an extensive 10-week, 30-hour training program.
"We couldn't do our work without the volunteers; they are the backbone of CASA," Ms. Zalich said.
Ms. Zalich chose a career in psychology after she learned about mental illness at a young age. Her great-grandmother had schizophrenia and as Ms. Zalich was growing up, she experienced what her grandmother and family went through.
"She was alive until I was 17 and, even as a young child, I was learning about mental health. I always found how the mind worked was so interesting," she said.
That experience and interest led her to study psychology at Saint Vincent College. But as interesting as she found learning about the mind, it wasn't exactly what she was hoping for as a career.
"The research and statistics were interesting, but it was just too dry for me," she said.
As she looked for a job after graduation, she began working with autistic children, a career she hadn't planned.
She decided to continue working with children and earned a master's degree in counselor education at Duquesne University.
Ms. Zalich said she first heard about CASA in 2006 and decided to join the steering committee to start a CASA program in Westmoreland County. She became a board member, and at the end of 2008, she made the leap to become full-time director of the program.
"It was very beneficial for me to be on the board and to have seen the project from the beginning. Since I had seen it come to fruition and knew what was behind it, I think that has helped me to do a better job," she said.
When CASA started in Westmoreland County, it served seven children. Last year, it served 195.
"That is probably my proudest moment as far as work goes. To see our numbers and know we are helping kids, it is great," Ms. Zalich said.
The backgrounds and ages of the volunteer advocates vary greatly. They range in age from 20s through 60s; some are retired while others balance CASA volunteering with family and full-time jobs, Ms. Zalich noted.
Mrs. Cerce started with CASA after retiring from her career in medical billing. Her first career, she said, was director of the early childcare center at Seton Hill University.
"I had seen an article about the first graduating class [of CASA] and thought it sounded like something I would enjoy," she said.
Mrs. Cerce works with the younger children referred by the courts.
"Because of my undergraduate studies and work in my first career, that is the best fit and where I think I can be most effective," she said.
It is a role Mrs. Cerce finds rewarding and important.
Westmoreland County CASA recently welcomed 10 new volunteer advocates: Heather Abraham, Roma Andreuzzi, Richard Ballina, Suzanne Barber, Angela Bergman, Amanda Bernard, Linda Diss, Robert Donley, Suzanne Kerlin and Amy Kolling.
CASA now has 54 advocates in Westmoreland County, in part because of the leadership of Ms. Zalich and her staff, Mrs. Cerce said.
Two classes of advocates are trained per year. Despite the increase in the number of advocates, more are needed.
"All one needs is to have the dedication to want to help a child," Ms. Zalich said. "We just don't have enough volunteers. The more we have, the more work we can do."
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: email@example.com.