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'Saving the world one kid at a time'

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 16, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-16 06:00:23-04

CINCINNATI — After 32 years in corporate America, Wynndel Watts took on a new kind of job about a year ago.

It doesn't pay anything, and it breaks his heart on a regular basis. But Watts couldn't be more pleased he decided to become a court appointed special advocate, or CASA, for the Cincinnati-based ProKids.

"I get a sense that I'm making a difference to one kid at a time," Watts said. "You can't solve the world. It's kind of like saving the world one kid at a time."

Wynndel Watts

Now, ProKids is looking for more men like Watts who want to make a difference in the lives of some of Hamilton County's most vulnerable children.

The organization will have its semi-annual Man Up event from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at Marty's Hops & Vines in College Hill. Other CASAs will be there to discuss their experiences and what it takes to be an effective volunteer.

ProKids helps hundreds of children in foster care who have been removed from their homes because of severe abuse or neglect. CASA volunteers, such as Watts and his wife, Michelle, get to know the kids and advocate for them as their cases move through the court system.

"Men make fantastic advocates," ProKids Executive Director Tracy Cook said. "But sometimes they will cede the ground to women when it comes to children."

Half the children that ProKids serves are boys, but only 29 of the organization's 185 CASA volunteers are men.

"We desperately need more volunteers," Cook said. "If you have almost half your population not available to you, you can't meet the need."

It's also good for these children to meet a man who cares about them and has their best interests at heart, she said.

The vast majority of the children ProKids serves come from households headed by a single mom, and most come from families living in poverty.

"I think sometimes men underestimate the impact of being a caring, invested man in these kids' lives," Cook said. "It can have a tremendous impact."

Watts has seen that firsthand.

Hard Work, But Fun

Watts and his wife are CASAs for a family of six children who had been living with their uncle until they were removed from that home because of allegations of abuse.

There are so many kids, he said, it takes both of them to work on the case.

A younger girl in the family was initially wary of Watts. She would run to his wife but seemed afraid of him, Watts said.

"After time, consistently showing up and visiting with her, now she runs up and gives me a hug," he said.

Getting more male CASAs is vital, Watts said, because often it was men who abused the children that ProKids serves.

"You've got to get to the point where they're trusting a male figure in their lives again," he said. "That's important."

Plus, the vast majority of the people helping abused and neglected children locally are women, he said.

"What I quickly learned when I got involved was that everyone involved in the case was female," said Watts, who is 57. "School counselors, teachers, staff at Job and Family Services. There's a lot of women in that circle, and it's good and bad. Kids gravitate toward the women, but they need that balance."

Cook said other male CASAs have pointed out that too much "mothering" isn't always what kids need.

"They have called the women out a little bit for feeling a little too sorry for a teenage boy," she said. "There's a different voice that comes from men. If we don't have a male on the team, kids don't get it."

As daunting as it might sound to be a CASA, the work only takes an average of two to four hours a week, Cook said.

Tracy Cook

Some men, especially if they are still working, worry that they don’t have enough time to dedicate to it. But Watts stressed that the meetings and scheduling are flexible, and CASAs get a say in when those meetings happen.

"It's hard work," Watts said. "But it's fun."

There's a real rush that comes from helping a child in need -- knowing that your work is helping to break a cycle of abuse and poverty, Cook said.

Beyond that, being a CASA has helped Watts grow, he said.

"I am now a better person. I'm more enlightened," he said. "I did not experience any of this growing up. My children didn’t."

Understanding what poor kids and families have to do to survive has given Watts a new understanding for them, he said.

"I respect what they are able to accomplish with very little resources," he said. "These children are actually helping me grow."

For more information about the ProKids Man Up event, click here or go to http://www.prokids.org/non-profit-events/man-finding-men-serve-prokids-children.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO this year.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.