By Jessica Stanfield
In March 2020, the Guardian ad Litem Foundation, 20th Judicial Circuit, was just days away from hosting its inaugural Voices of Hope Gala, a fundraising event more than a year in the making.
The venue, decorations, catering, script and guest list were finalized. Generous sponsors had already stepped forward. Supporters had purchased tickets by the dozens.
Then COVID-19 hit.
The Foundation’s board made the correct decision to postpone the event until November. With the virus still spreading, though, the Voices of Hope Gala was converted to a virtual event. It was Plan C.
“Canceling was never an option for us, just like giving up on the children we serve is never an option,” said Bruce Greenberg, the Foundation’s board president. “Through a pandemic, complicated cases or changes in foster care, our volunteers and the Guardian ad Litem Foundation continue to show up for the children who need us the most. If there’s one thing I can say about those who spend their lives protecting our innocent children, we never give up.”
While in-person fundraising events thrive on energy and excitement, would that same level of passion carry over to a live auction and fund-a-need appeal on YouTube and Facebook Live? Yes! After switching to a virtual format, the Voices of Hope Gala didn’t lose a single sponsor and no ticket holders asked for a refund.
In the end, the virtual event raised $66,800 to help recruit, train and support volunteer child advocates, as well as provide financial assistance to help meet a child’s basic and developmental needs. Court-certified volunteer child advocates serve as the voice for abused, neglected and abandoned youth in Southwest Florida as they navigate the judicial, education and child welfare systems.
The switch to a virtual format allowed three celebrities to participate in the gala, including rapper and actor Ice-T, who himself was in foster care as a child. He noted that foster kids have it rough right out of the gate, and thanked the Foundation and its dedicated volunteers for staying focused on what’s best for children.
“Stay strong, and keep doing what you do, and fighting the good fight,” Ice-T said. Leigh Anne Touhy, the adoptive mother of Michael Oher as told in The Blind Side, also sung the praise of volunteer child advocates.
“Their work ensures that vulnerable children who have fallen victim to abuse, neglect or abandonment have what they need to feel like ‘normal’ children, something so many take for granted and so many foster children are robbed of,” she said.
Jonathan Goldsmith, also known as “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” discussed how he has worked on fundraising initiatives for abused and neglected children since he was 18 years old. To the delight of viewers, he managed to deliver his catch phrase.
“I don’t always do shout outs for nonprofits, but when I do, it’s for the Guardian ad Litem Foundation,” he said.
Those celebrity appearances alone didn’t make this a star-studded event. The true stars are volunteers like Cynthia Shafer, this year’s HOPE Award recipient and founder of the Bedz for Kidz program that has provided beds for more than 3,000 children across Southwest Florida. The true stars are volunteer child advocates like Richard Hoagland, who shared inspiring stories of impact, like the one child who asked why he wanted to help.
“What keeps me going is the fact that the kids have to keep going,” Richard said. “I have become, in this case, the only person in their lives consistently for the last five and a half years.”
Not every child is so lucky. An estimated 40% of local youth in the child welfare system do not have a volunteer child advocate. That means no one is advocating for their best interests in court or serving as a confidant listening to their personal struggles. “Every one of them should have a Guardian ad Litem,” Richard said.
That’s exactly why the Guardian ad Litem Foundation and its volunteer child advocates keep going. Like Bruce said, we aren’t going to quit on children.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jessica Stanfield is Executive Director of the Guardian ad Litem Foundation, 20th Judicial Circuit.