Years ago, a young boy in small-town Wisconsin was struggling with a difficult family situation. The local pastor took to stopping by to play basketball and they talked between shots.
Today, Robert Reiter is a master sergeant in the Air Force; he and his wife have a 16-month-old son. He still remembers how he felt after those visits from a caring man who knew what he was going through.
"I think everybody can look back and think of people who affected them in positive ways," the 33-year-old says. "It's important to pass that on."
Reiter was stop-lossed (had his military service involuntarily extended) after Sept. 11, 2001; in 2002, he was transferred to Colorado Springs, where he serves with Space Command. About 18 months ago, he began to look for a way to pay forward the comfort he received long ago from that pastor. Then he saw an ad for a place helping kids navigate the turbulent waters of troubled families.
He offered his services to Court Appointed Special Advocates of the Pikes Peak Region and found a good fit with CASA's Supervised Exchange and Parenting Time program.
CASA has improved the lives of more than 5,000 children in Colorado Springs since 1989. It's part of a national organization founded in 1977, when a Seattle judge realized that abused and neglected children need advocates in court. The United States has more than 50,000 CASA advocates today.
In 1998, CASA started Supervised Exchange and Parenting Time (SEPT), after local courts asked for a safe environment in which kids could be dropped off by one parent and picked up by the other, averting conflicts. Parents with supervised visits also needed a neutral place to spend time with their children.
According to CASA, in the 2009-10 fiscal year, 340 children were helped through 688 exchanges and 3,237 visits with their parents. And no adverse incidents were reported.
More than 10 percent of those children served were directly connected to Fort Carson.
After 13-plus years of service, Reiter knows the toll that military life takes on marriages and families.
"Some of these people are coming back from deployments into really complicated situations, and they make mistakes," Reiter says. "Their heads aren't in the right game, and they'll end up getting put in a program by the court. They're not sure how to react to it, so it's important to have peers to help them get pointed back in the right direction, deal with the mistake that's been made, hold them accountable."
He vividly recalls one struggling veteran who had a 2-month-old daughter:
"I went right over and sat down next to him and just said, 'You know the rules, you've been here.' He kind of gave me a gritty nod. It was just, 'You can relax here, this is your time with your daughter. And I'm not going to bother you at any time.' Just telling people that you understand helps out a lot."
Other parents are fighting a different kind of war — against drugs and alcohol.
Deanna Simmons made some bad choices, went through a divorce, and needed CASA for three years. Her son was 8 years old when they first came; previously, their visits had been supervised by an individual in an office setting that Simmons found uncomfortable. The SEPT program suited mother and son much better.
"CASA volunteers were always there and you knew they were listening, but they were a lot less invasive," she says. "They tended to be group situations, so my son saw other children who were in the same situation."
She's been sober for two years, has unsupervised visits with her son, and now feels ready to move on to joint custody. She's especially grateful to SEPT manager Clinton Cooper, who monitored some of their visits.
"He said, 'You really interact wonderfully with your son, and whatever I can do to help you get unsupervised visits, I'm at your service.' And that was so affirming for me, that he wanted me to have that."
SEPT volunteers complete 17 hours of initial training, spread across several weeks, plus six hours of program observation and eight hours of annual in-service training, most of which is free. They must commit to at least one year; in Reiter's first year, he helped out a couple times a month, for a couple hours each time.
"To an outsider, the program is intimidating: 'You're saying I should come in and sit with families and I have to tell them what to do? I'd be interfering,'" Reiter says. "But the training I received here helped alleviate a lot of that unknown."
He isn't sure how long he'll remain in Colorado Springs, and wants to recruit other military men to be role models for fathers.
"You don't have to pull a star down out of the sky; it can be something simple," he says.
Tiffany Clark, SEPT volunteer liaison, says CASA also needs Spanish-speaking volunteers. She was a student with a full-time job when she first volunteered for SEPT, so she knows it can fit into a busy schedule. Volunteers can choose their day of the week.
"You can still do all the things on your list and still give back to your community," Clark says. "We want you."