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The best teacher: Experience equipped Smith to volunteer for CASA

By Jimmy Alford | Published Saturday, April 26, 2014

With her husband serving in the Navy in Bahrain, two teenage kids and a full load of college classes, there is little doubt Senecca Smith is a busy woman.

But she still takes time to help children in need.

Family of Volunteers

FAMILY OF VOLUNTEERS – Serene Smith (left) hugs her daughter-in-law Senecca Smith. Senecca survived a childhood filled with abuse and neglect but has come away wanting to help children who are in the same circumstances. Messenger photo by Jimmy Alford

She volunteers for Wise County CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASA volunteers are appointed by judges to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children. They make sure they don’t get lost in the overburdened legal and social service system, and end up in inappropriate homes.

She relates to these children and knows how hard life can be.

Early in her life, Smith got caught up in a cycle of abusive relationships, drugs and neglect. Family had always been complicated. Senecca has two sisters on her mother’s side and 18 half-brothers and half-sisters from her father – a father she didn’t know was alive until she was 11 years old.

Her relationship with her mother was turbulent at best, and even after she learned of her dad’s existence there was little connection there. She said over the years, she and her mother fought constantly. It usually started with her mom telling her how useless she was and Senecca throwing all her mother’s misdeeds back at her.

“I think it was about five years ago that I stopped talking to her. I did have social media contact for a while but I cut her off on that too,” Senecca said. “I have a 13-year-old and a 12-year-old and she hasn’t seen my daughter since she was 18 months old – when my grandmother passed away.”

Her grandmother was the single shining light during her childhood – and when she wasn’t around, life got dark.

“At the time, it was just my mother, my grandmother, my two sisters and me,” she said. “I was 6 years old and my grandmother had to leave. My mom had gotten into drugs really bad. She took all our money and my grandmother’s money and went on a spree for a week.

“When she came back, we had no food or electricity,” Senecca said. “My grandmother left to live with her sister so she could get back on her feet, and come get my sisters and me.”

That’s when she realized her life wasn’t like everyone else’s – that this wasn’t normal. She was seven when they got evicted.

“We were homeless and lived in the back of our station wagon for most of my third grade year,” Senecca said.

She had to start taking care of her sisters, because if she didn’t, no one else would. Somehow, they survived.

Eventually she started babysitting other families’ children, too, and even took a job delivering newspapers.

“During my sixth grade year, I only went to school 37 days because I was taking care of my sisters and the house,” she said.

She lived like this with her sisters and her mom for several years, until she couldn’t take it any longer and moved out.

Her sister had broken her elbow and finally gotten the cast off, but being in an ‘L’ shape for so long and likely still healing, the arm was sensitive.

“My sister said something to make mom mad, and she reached out and jerked my sister by the arm and tore all the muscles and ligaments in her arm and she had to have it re-splinted. That’s when I left.”

She moved in with her grandmother and heard later that her mother and sisters had been evicted again. They were staying at a drug dealer’s house.

“She called and said she would bring my sisters to my grandmother, but my grandmother had to give whatever cash she had, so she could pay a debt. Basically, she was trying to sell my sisters to my grandmother for drug money,” Senecca said.

“That was the first time my mom went to jail. I was 12 – I had called the cops on my mother.”

Since then, she has gone on to become the only person in her family to graduate high school, join the military, and go to college.

As a CASA volunteer, Senecca sees kids just like her, who might not be lucky enough to have a loving grandmother to lend a hand. She said if it weren’t for people like CASA volunteers, many children could end up caught in that vicious cycle, where generations all grow up in the foster care system.

She can’t think of anything more rewarding, aside from being a mother, than being a CASA volunteer. For her, it’s fun, frustrating, exciting and sometimes depressing, but there are good days.

“It has to be people like us that step in and say ‘enough is enough’ and it doesn’t have to be this way,” Senecca said. “I don’t have to be like my mother and do what she did. And they don’t have to do the things that their parents did. They can be better because of what they went through.

“Sometimes it’s not because you were raised that way – it is in spite of the fact you were raised that way. Sometimes you have to fight an uphill battle to see the view, but once you get there it is gorgeous.”

Wise County CASA Executive Director Serene Smith said she knew Senecca – her daughter-in-law – would be a great volunteer because of her life experiences. Serene’s son, Lyle Smith, and Senecca have been married for 13 years. They met in California while in the Navy.

Serene said CASA volunteers come from every imaginable walk of life. Some, like Senecca, have hard life experiences that have molded them, while others are just caring adults.

“If you match up well with a child, it can work especially well,” Serene said. “She can tell them that she had been in their shoes and knows what it is like. When you match those relationships, and they feel good about what they are doing it is amazing.”

CASA volunteers have to complete 30 hours of training as well as several hours of courtroom observation. To get information on volunteering or donating to the program, go to www.CASAWise.org, or call (940) 627-7535.

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