Once an advocate for children, always an advocate; retiree finds her place of service with CASA
Wilma Ziegler has been a CASA volunteer for about two years. For many decades she was a school teacher and counselor. She came out of retirement because of a desire to help abused and neglected children. Photo: Valeria Garza
MTSU Seigenthaler News Service
By 2021, Wilma Zeigler had been retired from education for 16 years. For more than three decades she was an elementary school teacher and counselor, working in two states, Texas and Georgia.
The Henry, Tennessee native said she and her husband, Berry, moved to Paris in 2005, to help take care of her ailing mother. The couple has lived there ever since.
It’s not that the former educator found retirement life disagreeable. She enjoyed visiting friends and her gardening adventures, which included three honeybee hives, but found she still yearned to help children like the ones she had taught for so long.
When she saw an advertisement for CASA, an organization that works with juvenile court to help kids who are abused and neglected, Zeigler was intrigued. She responded to the ad for more information and was soon applying for a spot. Three references, an application and a phone call later, Zeigler was invited to the next training session.
In early 2021, Zeigler began the six-week training course to become a CASA volunteer. Her decision to sign on wasn’t a surprise to anyone who knew her.
Zeigler has always adored children. An elementary school teacher for 20 years, followed by time as a certified counselor, she has spent her working life in service of younger generations.
“I went to graduate school to be a counselor because I realized about the second year (of teaching), I had children who had issues I wasn't sure how to deal with as a teacher,” said Zeigler.
Inspired by her first-grade teacher, Winnie Sue Brite, Zeigler knew early on that she would help children. After 31 years of teaching and counseling, she retired but never stopped caring, she added.
Chartered in 1977 in Seattle, Washington, the CASA organization, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates, now operates in 49 states. Henry County’s program was created in January of 2019.
Juvenile Court of Henry County, where CASA volunteers attend cases concerning the children they have been assigned as advocates. Photo: Valeria Garza
The CASA program promotes a child’s best interest in court. Children suffering from abuse and neglect are assigned a CASA volunteer, who makes home visits and files a report to advise the juvenile court judge on the best course of action in each case. In Henry County, Judge Vickie S. Snyder hears juvenile cases.
The advocates attend court and continue to meet with the family until the case is closed, which can take several months.
When she’s assigned a case, Zeigler spends between 10 to 12 hours a month interacting with the children and parents. At the child’s home, she sees where they eat, sleep, and observes their overall quality of life.
The five cases she has been assigned over the past two years have involved children ranging from newborns to 7 years old.
“It's impossible not to get involved with the children, for me,” Zeigler said, “and then it's a happy day…to let them go when they're in a safe place.”
Emotions often run high during the process. When the case ends in reunification between parent(s) and child, the work done to provide the court with an educated recommendation is worth it, she said.
On the second floor of the Henry County Court Annex building, CASA has a playroom where kids can play when their cases are being investigated.
Photo: Valeria Garza
“The good news is when people get off track, there's usually someone or something that's available for help,” said Zeigler.
At 80, she still spends hours in her garden, pulling weeds and tending the fruit and produce plants that are growing around her patio.
Although her children are grown and live in different states, her motherly instincts are as strong as ever, she said, noting she offers suggestions to her own kids, even as she examines the lives of the youngsters she has been assigned to protect.
Planting seeds of hope in the children assigned to her by CASA, Zeigler pledged she will continue to advocate for the young as long as she is able.
“I hope that I'm making a difference in a child's life because I truly care about children,” said Zeigler.
“Our children are our future, and I love them."
Jordan Reining (story) and Valeria Garza (photos) were two of 12 Middle Tennessee State University journalism students who recently spent two weeks in Henry County writing stories for the Paris Post-Intelligencer. See more of their work at www.theroadtripclass.com.