Patty Tollner has spent 12 years serving CASA of New Hampshire in multiple roles, from board member to volunteer advocate—some of that time with a special friend, her trained therapy dog Raisin, by her side. Like many people, Patty had heard about CASA through various channels over a number of years before the time was right for her to get involved.
When Patty first joined CASA, she had two children in college and one in high school, and she was also working full time. The company where she worked, Harvey Construction in Bedford, was very open to their employees participating in the community. So, as she puts it, she just found the time.
Putting Her Strengths & Skills to Use
“The training gives you a really good, solid background,” she said. “And even before that point, you have so many opportunities—different levels of participation and things that you’re being asked to do—and each of those things shows you all the strengths that you always had, but you never knew about. The work is so important, and I think that the advocate, at least in my case, gets so much out of it.”
Prior to retiring in 2013, Patty had also spent part of her career as a paralegal in a law firm, but she emphasizes that one does not need a special background to advocate as a CASA.
“You could be a gardener, nurse, doctor, administrative assistant, or a CEO,” she said. “You just need to be you, to listen, and to make recommendations to the court. That’s why you’re there. It sounds overwhelming, but by the time you walk into that courtroom you are so well versed in what the expectations are, and what you need to do. You know your child because you’ve been visiting with them, and it just flows, it just happens.”
She sees CASA as an incredible opportunity for people to pay attention to the skills they’ve had their whole life, but that nobody really asked them to demonstrate.
“People have this conversation all the time, where they’ll say, ‘I always wanted to do that, but I don’t have the time, I’m not a public speaker, I wouldn’t know what to say,’” she said. “Everyone has their role. Most people can do this. You don’t know until you try.”
An Important Voice
During her time advocating for 21 children in 14 different cases, Patty has found that the court takes her reporting very seriously.
“You’re on a level playing field with all the other folks that are there, whether that be the Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), attorneys for the parents, and CASA,” she said. “Everyone has their spot, and your spot is the child, so that he or she absolutely has a voice.”
Understanding Parents’ Challenges
While Patty’s ultimate focus as a CASA is on the child, her work has opened her eyes to the challenges some parents face.
“They may not have the internet or a consistent phone, or a car to travel to meetings,” she said. “What I’ve found is that I just try to be available to people. I think it can get a little challenging, but you have to step back and remember, they didn’t ask for us to be in their life. We’re in there for a reason – to make it better – and if you can put a little less pressure on the parent, who’s trying to change and conform to these certain rules, then I try to do that and not be too judgy.”
When doing her work as a CASA, Patty thinks about who she would want in the CASA’s role if it were her child.
“I would want someone that’s going to listen, and be committed and stick to it, and be honest,” she says. “So that’s what I do.”
The Reward of Making a Difference
When asked what she finds to be the most meaningful and rewarding parts of being a CASA, Patty immediately says it’s the kids.
“Whatever happens at the final disposition of that case, the time that the CASA is involved with that child, making these recommendations, and listening to them and speaking for them, is absolutely great time spent,” she said. “You may have been the only person that was really listening. I know, without question, that I made a real difference to some really important little people.”
She also points out how she has grown through her volunteer work.
“I am more patient, and more understanding,” she said. “I certainly have opinions, but when you go to meet a new child or a new family you leave that at the door. You work towards a good, safe goal for that child, and you help the kid write his or her story. I’m really proud of that.”
Lending a Helping Paw
Patty’s life with therapy dogs began with her basset hound Rita, who was the first therapy dog at the Nashua library. Rita would “read” to the children during story time. Following in Rita’s much smaller footsteps came Raisin, the “gigantic” labradoodle. Raisin visits Patty’s children if they’re interested, specifically youth who are in a group home setting.
“A therapy dog is a good icebreaker and an equalizer when people are upset or emotional,” she said. “It’s a good distraction from whatever ugly situation may be happening.”
Patty remembers a particular day when she and her CASA child were sitting on a bench, and the child became upset and started to cry. Raisin got up off the ground and dropped her big head onto the child’s lap with a hefty sigh. The child cracked up, Patty cracked up, and Raisin’s tail was wagging. It was a great moment, and just one of countless meaningful ways CASA advocates are able to connect with the children on their cases.
Be a Child’s Voice
Patty urges anyone curious about becoming a CASA volunteer to learn more.
“There are a lot of great organizations out there, but there isn’t an organization that addresses the same population in the same way as CASA. Really, truly, at the end of a case, there will be no question that you did something amazing because you were the light and the voice for that child.”