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VOL. 122 | NO. 171 | Tuesday, September 11, 2007

CASA Finds New Home; COMEC's Search Continues

By Rosalind Guy

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PACKED AND READY: Keshia Walker, executive director of CASA, packs boxes in the organization's former space at the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County. -- Photo By Rosalind Guy

In early July, Juvenile Court officials informed CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Memphis and Shelby County and COMEC (the Commission on Missing and Exploited Children) that they would have to find new office space by Oct. 1.

Both nonprofit organizations operated in donated space inside the court building on Adams Avenue.

CASA personnel found a place and are busily readying themselves for the move, while COMEC's search continues.

CASA executive director Keshia Walker said the organization will be moving its operations to the second floor of the administration building at Porter-Leath Children's Center at 868 N. Manassas St. COMEC personnel remain at Juvenile Court.

From scratch

Meanwhile, CASA workers have raised about $40,000 in cash and pledges along with $45,000 in in-kind donations since they were told to move. The in-kind items are mostly office furniture, plus a design for cubicle layout, moving services and other items needed to furnish the new Porter-Leath space.

"We needed donations for pretty much everything, because the only thing that we really had in terms of tangible things that belonged to us are our computers," Walker said. "So, everything had to be raised to actually create an office environment to operate from."

CASA has seven full-time employees. CASA also has a volunteer from AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and one from Meritan, formerly Senior Services Inc. The employees are expected to be able to use their new space by November, Walker said.

Close proximity

Juvenile Court officials told both organizations to move because the court is planning to hire more staff, creating a need to use all available space.

One of the concerns CASA and Juvenile Court officials expressed about the move was the desire to keep CASA and COMEC in close proximity since the work they do goes hand-in-hand. CASA volunteers and staff act as advocates for children in the Juvenile Court system, while COMEC's programs and services are designed to protect children's rights.

The space CASA will be moving to is about five minutes from the court, while COMEC staff members remain in the court building until they can find new office space. That still should allow both agencies to work together as they have in the past, Walker said, unless or until COMEC finds a new location. COMEC has been in the Juvenile Court building for 23 years.

COMEC executive director and Memphis police Sgt. Len Edwards said COMEC has not yet made any concrete plans for its coming move, although he said he hopes to have plans in place in the next two to three weeks.

COMEC workers have divided their time between trying to find space and preparing for the Child Safety Identification program they've had at the Mid-South Fair for the past 24 years.

"We were actually going to cancel (the child safety identification program) because we were having to move," Edwards said. "But all of our supporters were calling us and saying, 'No, no, you've got to go to the fair,' so we're kind of getting geared up for doing that. Hopefully, we'll be able to have this all resolved whichever way it needs to be soon."

COMEC will have a booth at the Mid-South Fair from the day it opens Sept. 21 to the final day on Sept. 30.

At the booth, COMEC workers will photograph more than 10,000 children and talk to their parents about protecting them from strangers on the Internet. Booth workers also will provide information about COMEC's free drug-testing program.

Picture perfect

With financial support from the Kiwanis Clubs of Memphis, COMEC is able to photograph the children for free. Each digital photograph is given to parents on a lanyard, so in the event a child becomes missing, an up-to-date photograph of him or her is available.

"The biggest reason for this is that one of seven children are recovered because there's a current photograph," Edwards said. "And statistics indicate that 66 percent of single-parent households do not have a current photograph of their child."

While Edwards and other COMEC staff have been preparing for the event at the fair, the process of looking for new space close to Juvenile Court is still active.

"A lot of the traffic that we get in our office is walk-in traffic from Juvenile Court," Edwards said. "A lot of people in the court here for other business come into our office for other issues."

Anyone interested in helping may call CASA at 405-8422 and COMEC at 405-8441. The organizations' Web sites are www.memphiscasa.org and www.comec.org.

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