Community Heroes: La Jolla resident Kim Lee advocates for foster youth

La Jolla resident Kim Lee, left, with a woman she assisted through the court-appointed special advocates program.
La Jolla resident Kim Lee, left, with a young woman she assisted through Voices for Children’s court-appointed special advocates program.
(Courtesy of Kim Lee)

As a court-appointed special advocate, or CASA, longtime La Jolla resident Kim Lee endeavors to ensure foster youth in San Diego are taken care of beyond the capabilities of a system she says is broken but “not hopeless.”

Lee, who grew up in San Diego and owns Café Moto in Barrio Logan, has volunteered since January 2015 as a CASA with Voices for Children, a San Diego nonprofit helping local foster children since 1980 by connecting them with needed services.

To become a CASA, volunteers complete “rigorous training with Voices for Children,” Lee said. “They train you very well. … It’s very interesting to learn about the whole social services and foster youth program.”

CASAs are matched with foster children from infancy to age 18, Lee said, and remains assigned to that child or children through adoption or until they age out of the system. Each CASA gets one assignment at a time, which may mean siblings if they are kept together. CASAs might help the young person see their siblings, attend court appearances and/or advocate for them in school settings.

CASA service is “a real hands-on situation,” Lee said, and that “just having someone show up makes a difference for” the children.

After training, Lee was assigned to a girl, then 15, whom she was matched with based on the Voices for Children questionnaires Lee filled out. “The match was just incredible,” she said. Lee began her assignment learning about the teen’s circumstances through the girl’s social worker, attorney and therapist, then working to advocate for the teen in various scenarios. Lee’s court appearances included asking the court — the teen’s legal guardian — for permission to cut the girl’s hair, get her ears pierced, or get braces.

Lee’s charge, who lived in a group home, was “good at advocating her herself, but the system is so overloaded,” Lee said. “I saw immediately the results of having me in her life.”

Lee said the CASA program is critical to foster children’s success, as social workers are often overwhelmed by their caseloads. “One social worker will have 50 cases,” she said. “The system is overloaded with kids in need.”

Lee said acting as a child’s advocate is often “a relief” for their social worker. “I could tend to her needs more quickly.”

While the girl started high school on an individualized education plan and with low grades, Lee realized after working with teachers and counselors to locate old transcripts, the teen “wasn’t as far behind as we thought.”

She said “one of the big successes I had with her was getting her school in order then getting her into the right program after school,” calling the teen daily to check on assignments “like a mother would do for a child.”

Lee, who has two grown daughters of her own, said her facilitation helped the teen graduate on time, which might not have happened otherwise.

She was also able to help the girl obtain a birth certificate and social security card after “a lot of digging.”

Lee said her advocacy for the teen included “some dark times,” but “becoming a CASA was this amazing opportunity to help a child become an adult in a world where her parents weren’t able to do that for her.”

In addition to the advocacy, Lee would take her charge on outings. Though Voices for Children recommends one or two outings a month, Lee would see the girl two or three times a week, often visiting her at the group home and once taking her to audition for the television show “America’s Got Talent.”

The girl — now 21 — aged out of the foster care program earlier this year, having been allowed to participate in extended foster care, in which participants receive government assistance by meeting certain criteria such as employment or education.

Despite no longer having a formally sponsored relationship, Lee said she and her former charge are “still very close and she’s a huge part of my life,” Lee said.

Lee, who has volunteered in the past with local philanthropy groups Las Patronas and National Charity League, looks forward to her new assignment as a CASA, coming in January.

She said she doesn’t know yet the age of her new charge but adds she doesn’t have a preference: “Where the need is, is where I’ll go.”

Being a CASA “has been very humbling” for Lee, who added “it’s [eye opening] to another world of what’s broken but can be fixed. It’s not hopeless.”

She added, “It’s changed me forever.”

The La Jolla Light’s Community Heroes series for the holiday period highlights people who aren’t often in the news but make a difference in the lives of others. ◆