LUMBERTON — A little-known program that serves as a voice for foster children made roared on Saturday as 75 motorcycles made noise in support of its efforts.
From a parking lot off of Caton Road in Lumberton , more than 70 bikers showed up for a ride to Fairmont and back to support the Robeson County branch of the Guardian ad Litem program, which is part of the the North Carolina Judicial Branch and Office. A guardian ad litem is an individual appointed by the court to represent the best interests of a child entangled in the legal system.
Amy Hall, district administrator, said volunteers serve as advocates for children in foster care and in other situations where the child is separated from the family. The event Saturday was to raise awareness for the program and to raise funds so the program can recognize its volunteers.
Registration fees were $10 per bike and $5 per extra person on each bike.
“We often refer to ourselves as the best-kept secret in Robeson County,” Hall said. “The program basically supports and advocates for abused and neglected children and we represent their voice in court. We depend on volunteer, citizen-led individuals.”
Volunteers take a 30-hour training course, half of which is online, and after successful completion they take an oath and are sworn in as advocates, Hall said.
“You go out and visit with the child at least once a month. You keep in contact, you report to the court the best wishes and the best interest of that child while that case remains open,” Hall said.
Not every child separated from parents is in foster care; some are with a church member or family friend, but also need advocates. Reunification with the family is always the goal of the court, Hall said, but when that doesn’t happen advocates work for custody, guardianship or adoption.
“We stay in until that child finds a permanent safe, loving and stable home,” she said.
There are 306 children in the program now, she said, but only about 40 advocates for them. It should be a one-to-one ratio, she said.
“We’re in desperate need of volunteers and you really just have to have a passion for children,” Hall said. “It’s not hard work. It’s a calling. You really have to just have a heart to serve these children.”
Among the volunteers is Ashleigh Bell, a master’s degree candidate at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke who want to become a social worker. Because her course studies require internship hours, she chose the guardian ad litem program.
“I make contact with the child’s social worker. They update you with what’s going on in the case and they tell you if there is something about the child you really need to know,” Bell said.
The program’s supervisors also make sure they don’t put a volunteer in a situation that is uncomfortable for them, Bell said.
“They’ll see you and they’ll run up to you and hug you and smile and ask you when you’re coming back,” Bell said. “The connection that you make with the child is the thing that surprised me the most.”
Emmett Brown, a retired North Carolina state trooper, rode on Saturday.
“It makes a lot of difference for the kids and everybody else who participates,” Brown said.
Charles Grissett of State Burners Motorcycle Club, which organized the motorcycle ride, said they often participate in charity rides.
“They asked us to help put on this event and we are more than happy to do it — anything to help the community,” Grissett said.
Otis Jynall, president of Unusual Outcomes Motorcycle Club in Lumberton, said it is important to them to support programs that help children.
“We help as much as we can,” Jyndall said.
Child Advocacy Month, which is also National Child Abuse Prevention Month, acknowledges the importance of families and communities working together to advocate for children while preventing child abuse and neglect. During the month of April, communities come together to promote prevention across the country and to encourage the social and emotional well-being of children and families.
The program reaches throughout the state, according to Cindy Bizzell, administrator, Guardian ad Litem Division North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts.
“Our GAL volunteers are changing lives by providing children a voice in court. Last year, 5,075 volunteers were appointed with attorney advocates to represent more than 17,000 children in 65,042 child abuse and neglect hearings. Volunteers generally work behind the scenes, so we want to take this time to publicly recognized their contribution,” Bizzell said.
A child with a volunteer advocate is more likely to find a safe, permanent home, is half as likely to re-enter the foster care system and is more likely to succeed in school, Bizzell said.
Reach Terri Ferguson Smith at 910-416-5865.