WAXAHACHIE — For each of the last seven years, CASA of Ellis County has wined and dined its way to substantial donation totals during the "Share the Love" Gala.

This year was no different, as the 7th annual event raised over $120,000 that will help pay for everything from replacement eyeglasses to tutoring for children placed in foster care. The total was reached through silent and live auctions, as well as general donations or sponsorships. A few of the items sold during the live auction included a seven-night stay in St. Thomas on the U.S. Virgin Islands and a dinner for 10 catered by former State Rep. Jim Pitts at his house on Cedar Creek Lake. There was also a wooden rocking horse, four round-trip tickets on Southwest Airlines, a spring turkey hunt, and an autographed Ezekiel Elliot Jersey sold to the highest bidders.

Established in 2004, CASA of Ellis County is one of 72 Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) organizations across the vast state of Texas that serve children who CPS has removed from a home. Regardless of location and in addition to funding, CASA helps foster children by training volunteers to deal with kids who have been abused or neglected while in the foster-care system. As noted by a program distributed during the annual event, proceeds raised during the evening "help pay for incidentals of children in foster care including replacement eyeglasses, sports programs, and activities, therapeutic horseback riding, tutoring, birthday gifts, bicycles, laptops for graduates and more.

As Nikki Ranson stepped to the podium to deliver the keynote during the event held Feb. 10 in a ballroom at the Waxahachie Civic Center, she did so with over 400 guests, elected officials and community leaders in attendance. Ranson is the CEO and Founder of SWAGG Programs, which is a children's outreach program located in Waxahachie. According to its mission statement, SWAGG Programs exists to "assist foster and homeless children in creating a standard of excellence that promotes Serenity, Wisdom, Agility, Grace, and Guidance developed through comprehensive programs."

Ranson told of the relationship her seven adopted kids had with a CASA volunteer, Chad Frymire of Dallas, during the time she fostered the children before their adoption.

“We thank Nikki for telling her story and sharing the spotlight with her CASA volunteer, Chad. People often wonder what exactly it is that CASA volunteers do and how they help children move forward to their happy, permanent homes," stated CASA of Ellis County Executive Director Rhodie Rawls in a post-event release. "Nikki was able to explain that Chad was just 'always there' for the kids. He was at school meetings, basketball games, birthday celebrations and more to ensure that these children’s lives were enhanced with an adult role model who was consistent, reliable and stable. That’s the beauty of the CASA volunteer program because our volunteers remain on the case to which they are assigned until the children have a forever home and the case is dismissed."

After she had concluded her speech, Ranson presented Frymire with an award for being "the guy who was always there" for her children.

In total, the over-$120,000 total was reached thanks in large part to the generous donations of many. According to a post-event tally and release, the one-night event saw a 40-percent increase in cash and table sponsors, along with approximately 100 more pre-paid tickets sold than in 2016.

Rawls noted that all of the funds raised will help the CASA volunteers — who range from stay-at-home mothers, entrepreneurs, and retirees — continue their efforts of serving as positive influences in the lives of children in desperate need of such a role model.

“We are so fortunate here in Ellis County that we can serve 100 percent of the children that are removed from their homes for safety concerns,” Rawls said. "Judge Jim Chapman assigns CASA to those cases, and we assign volunteers to meet with the children, their foster families or relative placements, the teachers, counselors, doctors and others who come into contact with these foster children. By really embedding themselves into these children’s lives, our CASA volunteers are then able to make recommendations to Judge Chapman as to where these children should end up permanently.

“[...] You don’t need a legal background or social work background to be a volunteer advocate; just a true heart to help children who have been through the worst times of their lives. You can give a child a chance at a happy, forever home and you can be the person in a child’s life 'who is always there' for them.”

For more information on becoming a CASA volunteer advocate, visit www.casaofelliscounty.org or call 972-937-1455.

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Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith

(469) 517-1470