(EDITOR'S NOTE: Following is the second in a yearlong series of real-life stories of people who benefit from the services provided by the Lycoming County United Way Program Partners and those who make it possible).
A very special day in Gretchen Phillips-Fisher's life occurred when her daughter, Symphony "Symmy," was born in 2006. Gretchen had a son and was delighted to now have a daughter. Unfortunately, Gretchen's joy soon deteriorated.
After returning to work, Gretchen left Symmy in the care of her husband, Symmy's father. Gretchen was shocked when 3-month old Symmy was diagnosed with Shaken Baby Syndrome, non-accidental injury, and several other very serious related conditions.
Pictured from left, Gretchen’s son Tyler Phillips, Gretchen Phillips-Fisher, Sandy Spencer and Symmy Fisher.
Symmy was quickly removed from the family's home due to the diagnosis. Gretchen felt guilty for leaving the baby alone with her father where she thought she would be safe. She became frustrated knowing she wasn't to blame for the abuse but couldn't prove it. She missed her daughter terribly and hated being separated while Symmy was in foster care.
After numerous prayers and many sleepless nights, Gretchen received a phone call from Sandy Spencer. Sandy explained that she was a court appointed special advocate and wanted to help with Symmy's case. CASA provides professionally trained volunteers to advocate in the best interest of abused and/or neglected children, which leads to placement in safe, nurturing, permanent homes.
Gretchen was grateful that Sandy took the time to get to know her, her children, her parents, her friends, and even Symmy's father, who now is incarcerated for abusing Symmy. After observing supervised visits and reviewing medical records, police reports and work records, Sandy testified in court. Sandy concluded from her extensive observations that Gretchen could not have prevented Symmy's injuries. She explained that Gretchen was a good parent and had done nothing wrong. The judge thanked Sandy for her report and said "it shed new light" on the case.
"I feel that I have been blessed to be a part of the CASA program," Sandy said. "Although at times it might be frustrating or difficult, it is rewarding knowing you are doing the right thing and giving a voice to the children. The love of the children and appreciation of those you help is truly a gift beyond what words can describe. It can change their lives and your life forever."
Soon after, Symmy returned home with her mother and the case was closed. Today, at 26 months old, Symmy is doing well after undergoing six brain surgeries, a recent eye surgery and two shunts installed in her brain. She learned how to crawl and there is hope that someday she will learn to walk.
"Sandy isn't Symmy's CASA anymore," Gretchen said, "she is our friend and we will always be grateful for everything she's done for us."
CASA is a program of the YWCA of Northcentral PA and is funded in part by Lycoming County United Way. Through its annual funds distribution process determined by community volunteers, United Way allocated $18,000 to CASA based on community needs and program outcomes.
Each year, a half million abused and neglected children are in need of a safe, permanent, nurturing home. A CASA volunteer participates in 40 hours of professional training before he or she takes on a case. CASA volunteers stay connected with the child/children with whom they are appointed throughout the duration of the case, and for some instances, like this one, even after the case has been closed. The CASA assures the child's needs are being met by providing evidence-based information to the courts.
"The CASA Program is a vital service to children and families in need in Lycoming County. After 5 successful years and more than 200 children having their small voices heard in the courts by CASA, Lycoming County United Way is proud to have the YWCA and CASA as a Program Partner," said Scott Lowery, executive director of Lycoming County United Way.
For more information on CASA of Lycoming County, or the YWCA of Northcentral PA, call 322-4637 or visit www.ywcawilliamsport.org. For more information on Lycoming County United Way, call 323-9448 or visit www.lcuw.org.