I want to take a moment to THANK EVERYONE who has prayed for me and walked with me over the years. I love you all and am so thankful to call you friends and family.
Last Friday was unforgettable. I gathered a notepad, pen, an email that I had printed, and my keys and I left Abilene for a 4-hour drive to our state capital. As I drove there I made a promise to myself that I would listen intently and learn from the wealth of knowledge in the room. I vowed to zip my lips and use my ears because listening seems to work better that way (I am a verbal processor). I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t met anyone in this meeting and I believed that I would have little to offer but since I was nominated by a judge and invited to be there I was eager to learn about what would be behind the door if I walked through it.
I arrived an hour early as I stepped off of the elevator onto the eighth floor and walked through the doors to the meeting room. I looked around and noticed the sweet lady setting up this event. I gave her a nervous giggle while explaining, “I am an hour early because I would rather be that than 5 minutes late”. She said, “no problem at all, find your name tag and get some coffee while you wait. I looked out the windows at the tall buildings, little cars, people riding their bikes while wearing their nice suit and tie and joggers sharing the sidewalk as they enjoyed the sunny day. I almost felt as if I was in a foreign land. I found my seat and waited for people to start walking in. I read and reread the information in my email and reminded myself that I would simply listen.
One by one people trickled in until the room was full of incredible people with different education and backgrounds. The meeting started and I still wasn’t sure why God would open this specific door. That being said, I was also feeling a bit inferior. There were two small words that kept replaying in my head, why me? I tried the best I could to hush the critic in my mind that was distracting me and began to listen as everyone shared their name and occupation. When it was my turn I simply said, I am Stephanie Ellison and I am a wife, mom, and a CASA. There were several attorneys, judges, data analysts, parent advocates, CASA and social workers represented in this room and although I have a master’s degree I felt under-qualified to be present. I continued to listen and wrestle with the question of why am I here?
I listened to Mr. Dylan Moench, Staff Attorney with the Supreme Court of Texas Children’s Commission, as he started with an overview of the meeting and its importance. “We have created this group, Task Force on Court-Appointed Legal Representation so that we can help strengthen the quality of legal representation for the children and their parents in foster care. I think we need to hear from a few people regarding their experiences before we continue, Mrs. Ellison can you share your experience?” I felt my cheeks turn a bright color of red when he said my name. I held my breath. GULP! Panic began to set in, similar to how I felt like a high school student presenting in Public Speaking 101. I paused, took a breath and reminded myself that I am here for a reason. I fought the internal dialogue that sounded something like this.
Me: BUT, I am only here to listen,
Me: He just called your name, STAND UP”
Me: STAND UP!
I stood up! Before I answered his question I needed him to clarify so I asked Mr. Moench, “Would you like for me to explain my experience with CASA”? The reason I had asked this was because I didn’t know he knew anything about my childhood and I didn’t know why I should speak about CASA when the Executive director for the county was across the room from me. He answered, “We would like to hear about your experience with CASA and your experience from your childhood if you feel comfortable sharing.” I shared about five minutes of my story with everyone and ended my very impromptu speech with my reason for joining CASA. I told them about my birth father being incarcerated for child sexual assault. I told them that my mother was 15 when she had her first child and 22 when she had her 4th. I shared that she loved the only way she knew how but it was very deficient in many areas regarding care for us. I shared a little about their trauma and inability to efficiently care for us and how her way of medicating her mental struggles was by means of drugs and men. I shared brief experiences about homelessness and about my experience before a judge the day that I got emancipated. I told them what it means to finally use my voice to stand up for those without a voice and what it means to understand the trauma that these children and families face on a daily basis.
During the remainder of the 4-hour meeting, we discussed the 2018 Legal Representation Study, funding, models of representation and the benefits of quality representation for our children and parents who have found themselves in the hands of the state. We discussed what we will be doing over the next year and I gleaned. I realized that I was supposed to be there to share my experience, my expertise in resilience and my heart for the future of these children.
When the meeting was over, just before everyone stood up I asked Mr. Moench if I could say one more thing? Once I was given a green light I stood and thanked everyone there for all of their hard work over the years as they represent the “least of these” in our communities. I thanked them for caring to show up to the table and for inviting me to the table as well. I asked them to keep in mind that these are tiny humans that we are attempting to set laws for and that they deserve the very best that we have to offer.
During the break, I was approached by the Executive Director of Austins CASA Laura Wolf, with a very encouraging message. I am so thankful for her kind words. Also before I left the meeting I had been invited to speak for three different organizations and I had some very good conversations regarding helping children who are in foster care and those who are “at-risk”. Turns out God can use anyone he wants, no matter where you come from, to make a positive difference in the world.
Please pray for the next year as we work together to help children in our great state.