Category Archives: Uncategorized

March Blog

Unassuming Heroes:

Crystal’s Twenty-Year Anniversary

at CASA of Northwest Arkansas

Crystal Vickmark has been an integral part of the business side of CASA of Northwest Arkansas during her nearly 20 years as our Executive Director.

For Crystal, though, leading CASA and the children we impact is a much more personal endeavor.

To understand just how personal our mission is for Crystal as she approaches her 20-year anniversary at CASA requires little more than a glance at the pictures in her office. Inside one of those frames rests the face of a young girl, one of nearly 20 children Crystal’s sister fostered at her home in South Dakota.

Crystal was around many of the foster children who came and went under her sister’s care, including the three her sister later adopted. But it was the little girl in the picture in Crystal’s office whom she grew particularly close to and remains a part of her daily thoughts even today.

“I keep it there and look at her every day for inspiration,” Crystal said. “What brings me joy at the office and my job is the people here. It’s knowing that the work we do is so important to so many.”

In celebration of Crystal’s 20-year anniversary at CASA, we asked her to reflect on some of the achievements, challenges, and milestones that she has been a part of leading during her time in Northwest Arkansas.

CASA: What does an Executive Director do?

Crystal: My director role has changed a lot over the past 20 years. When I took the position, it was everything; there was no development/communication staff, no office admin, no team leads, or even a program director. Our advocate supervisors did volunteer training and management, and I did everything else— fundraising, newsletters, letters, payroll, recruiting volunteers, outreach, etc.

Now my role is implementing and monitoring our strategic plans, ensuring that we are making movements toward our goals, and we are following policies and procedures and the law. I have the time and capacity to look forward. Back then, we were just making sure we were moving forward one day at a time.

CASA: What is a memory you have of the true impact a CASA Volunteer can have?

Crystal: There are so many volunteer stories that makes me go, ’wow, this is why we do what we do.’ [In one case], the teenager would act out after school after doing homework, and no one knew why. It turned out he had a second-grade reading level. It was the volunteer that noticed and brought it to everyone’s attention. Without the advocate, I just don’t think it would have been found out.

CASA: What have been some of the largest areas of growth you’ve seen for CASA?

Crystal: The largest areas of growth have been when we were able to purchase and move into our current building. We were able to triple our office space. This allowed us to add on staff, which in turn allowed us to recruit and train more volunteers, ultimately allowing us to serve 100% of children in foster care.

When we hit 100%, I cried. The goal setting was crucial; every day we could see how many more children we had to serve and how many more volunteers we needed to recruit to make it. We had been lasered focused, working towards this goal for so long that when we actually were about to achieve it, it felt like a dream.

CASA: What have been some of the most challenging areas?

Crystal: There were many difficult times over the years, but the pandemic… The pandemic was hard. I could not impart to my staff just how much we worried about their safety and their feelings, our volunteers, and the children we serve.

For the first few months of the pandemic, our leadership focused on our policies and how we can ensure the safety of our staff, volunteers, and children. There was no handbook on how to lead an organization through a global pandemic.

As time went on, the concern over our children didn’t wane. We knew children, who were no longer under the eyes of our teachers, were likely at home in less-than-ideal situations with underemployed and overly stressed parents.

We continually felt the weight of this responsibility of ensuring the safety of all these children.

We did have some positive changes that came out of it though. Like many organizations, we have been able to switch to a hybrid work schedule which has allowed many of our staff to adjust their schedules and create a better work-life balance. Our staff enjoys the freedom to be there for their family when they need them most.

CASA: What have been some of the most surprising areas?

Crystal: I didn’t realize how much community support we would have for our agency. I came in new to the NWA community, to Arkansas, and new to nonprofit leadership.  When attending meetings with other CASA programs, I quickly learned that other programs didn’t have the same opportunities that we did. Northwest Arkansas has a heart for philanthropy!

You just need to ask, and our community is there to support us.

CASA: If someone gave CASA $1 million dollars today, how would you invest it in the organization?

Crystal: Right now, there are three areas I would invest in. A parking lot, staff benefits, and family preservation.

Just before the pandemic, we completed the renovation of our Walker Family Foundation Training Room, which increased our training capacity by more than double, but then we went entirely virtual. As we’ve begun transitioning back to in-person sessions, a major problem became apparent— there are just not enough spaces for guests and volunteers to park onsite safely. So, we’ve had to begin capping our training sessions to ensure the safety of our guests, staff, and presenters.

I would also ensure our staff benefits are what they need to be. Even though we have made big headway over the last few years, I still have hopes of adding some kind of mental health component so that our staff and volunteers can have access to free mental healthcare.

Now that we are serving 100%, the natural next path is helping children stay in the home and not have to be removed. Prior to CASA, I worked in family preservation and feel that adding a CASA volunteer to the mix would add tremendous value to families in crisis, our community, and the child’s future.

CASA: What would next level mean for CASA?

Crystal: We are next level! I feel strongly that our CASA program is one of the top in the nation. On a local level, we are well known and have become an organization that our community wants to be part of. We meet all of our standards with flying colors and are always open to continual improvement.

If we were to add additional staff, it would be someone to help with data and data integrity. There are children we could help even more if we knew their educational, social, or medical baseline.  There are assessments available in our database, but we do not have the capacity to train our staff and advocates to use them at this time.

CASA: What is your superpower?

Crystal: My superpower is being able to hire people and get out of their way. I look for people that have different ideas, people that are excited about the mission and its potential and envisioning it together. There’s no way that this could happen without staff members committed to CASA.

CASA: Please describe our volunteers in one or a few words.

Crystal: Unassuming Heroes. Our advocates do not do this important work for money or fame, but because it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes they may not even realize the impact they make. A younger child might not remember their volunteer’s name as they grow up, or maybe even their actions— but their lives changed because of that volunteer. They were put on another path because of that volunteer. The impact is always there for the child.

Congratulations on 20 years, Crystal!


Want to learn more about CASA of NWA?

Interested in finding your own way to make an impact?

25 Years of CASA Volunteers

25 Years of CASA Volunteers


“It will be hard, and I hope I can handle it. It will be worth it to help the child.” Annette Summers, CASA volunteer, 1997

“I think I look at things through a different lens now… it gave me a deeper sense of empathy for people and what they’re going through. Anytime I hear of something bad… I always wonder how they grew up; was there people there for them.”- Annette Summers, Executive Director of CASA of the Tri-Peaks, 2022

While attending a social work class at the University of Arkansas in 1997, Annette Summers found herself listening to a speaker presenting a brand-new program that was starting up in the area. The representative talked about a significant gap in the child welfare system- one that left children that faced abuse and neglect in a position of isolation. Removed from their home, too many children were navigating foster care, treatment facilities, court hearings, and school all alone and no one looking out solely in their best interest.

But the speaker had a solution. They represented a new organization that after three years of development, was now looking to train volunteers to advocate for these children that otherwise had no consistent adult figures in their life. The volunteers were to be the consistency the children desperately needed. Intrigued at the thought of working with children that sincerely needed help, Annette signed up right away.

That small organization beginning with only twelve volunteers and serving one county in Arkansas went on to train over 1,270 volunteers and serve over 5,000 children in four counties over the next 25 years. CASA of Northwest Arkansas now serves Benton, Washington, Carroll, and Madison counties and serves every child that comes into care in NWA.

“Whatever the speaker said must have really caught my attention and motivated me to sign up right away… It just made me really intrigued about that career path.”

Annette may not have realized then how much that day would come to influence her life, but she does credit much of her eventual interest in child welfare to her experiences as a CASA. At the time she was majoring in Business Management while taking some social work classes. After some time, she ended up finding herself working in child welfare in Arizona, San Francisco, and now Arkansas again. Now in her current role as the Executive Director of CASA of the Tri-Peaks— another CASA office located in Booneville, AR— she’s able to help children in a whole different capacity.

Speaking to how child welfare has changed over the years, Annette says, “Child welfare is a well-intended system. There is a lot more focus on trying to keep children with their families.” Over the years, child welfare has been more recognizing of the trauma pertaining to being removed from a home. “Things are more collaborative now. You’re encouraged to have different opinions between all the different stakeholders during staffings and meetings. Everyone’s voices are usually heard, and the judges are more familiar with CASA now. They look to the CASA reports as valuable information,” shared Annette.

CASA was needed back then because foster care can be lonely and scary as a child. Because of the high caseloads of other stakeholders (caseworkers, Ad Litems, lawyers, etc.), kids may not get the individual attention they need. “[CASA’s] serve that role of being a consistent and safe person for these children,” said Annette. Unfortunately, many of these circumstances still exist today, which is why having a CASA around for a child is just as important as ever.

CASAs are typically asked to serve as long as it takes for their case to be closed. After that, many choose to stay to take on more cases. Of course, life happens, and some volunteers end up departing our organization after a while. On the other hand, we have CASAs who have been with us up to 20 years! Others may choose to leave and come back. While our volunteer retention rate of 77.4% is strong, nobody can volunteer forever.

This is why every month, we host at least two separate CASA 101 Info Sessions, where anybody can come learn about what it means and what it takes to become a CASA volunteer. Next to retaining our volunteers, recruiting new volunteers is top priority. Making sure we can continue serving every single child who is a victim of abuse and neglect in Northwest Arkansas is our ultimate goal, and we can only do this by bringing in new volunteers.

When Annette Summers learned about CASA that day in class, it ended up influencing her life toward child welfare, and eventually leading an entire CASA program in Arkansas. Many other CASAs share how it has changed their lives as well; opening their eyes to things they’ve never seen before and helping children in ways they didn’t think possible. “Not only are you helping a child, in return there’s intrinsic value; it makes you feel good, to know you’re helping somebody. Some things are out of your control but knowing as a CASA you get to be there for them through it all is really important,” says Annette.

If you’re interested in taking the first steps of becoming a CASA like Annette, attend a 101 Info Session to learn more about how you can advocate for a child today.

Example Post

Example Caption

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nam porttitor purus ac enim hendrerit nec ullamcorper urna congue. Phasellus ornare auctor commodo. Curabitur turpis metus, semper in feugiat id, posuere id nisi. Morbi ac arcu id neque commodo lacinia in quis neque. Ut vel lacus odio, et rhoncus elit. In tristique aliquam tellus ultricies viverra. Fusce vestibulum felis blandit justo volutpat in rutrum massa tristique. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Proin vitae metus et lectus laoreet venenatis. Vestibulum adipiscing convallis felis, id imperdiet magna laoreet eu. Fusce fringilla velit sed enim volutpat tempus.