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'Harry was always there'

When Genevieve Hummel entered the foster care system at age 2, Court Appointed Special Advocates volunteer Harry Howard was there to watch out for her best interests as she cycled through more than a dozen foster homes.

When she graduated from high school, then from Southern Oregon University, he was at her graduation ceremonies, even though she had aged out of the foster care system. When she gave birth to her son, he was at the hospital.

When Hummel, now 30, became a foster mom and took in a toddler girl to raise alongside her own young son, Howard agreed to be a CASA volunteer for the energetic little girl. The 90-year-old World War II veteran rides a motorcycle and sports a helmet with an Arabian horse painting done by Hummel's husband.

"Harry was consistent. Harry was always there as I moved throughout multiple homes," Hummel said. "It's important having someone you can trust."

This week, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners gave Howard the county's Community Service Award for July in honor of his 27 years as a CASA volunteer. During those decades, he has helped improve the lives of 37 children.

Commissioner Bob Strosser said Howard has been there for the kids as they went through challenging events, including court hearings about their welfare and moves among different foster homes and schools.

Many end up in foster care because of abuse and neglect.

Howard said he became a CASA volunteer for a simple reason.

"These children don't deserve the hand they were dealt in life," he said. "If we can contribute something to compensate for those things, that's its own reward. It's difficult work, but it can be very rewarding at the same time."

Although she was just a toddler at the time and doesn't remember their first meeting, Hummel said for as long as she can remember, Howard has shown that he cares personally about her. As she cycled through caseworkers and foster families, he always kept up on the details of her life and offered encouragement.

"He always remembered things," she said. "When I ran cross-country in high school, he would ask, 'What time did you get?' I didn't have to remind him that I had had a meet."

Hummel said Howard always remembers all the people involved in a child's case and how they are interconnected. He will do everything from call a pediatrician to visit a birth parent in jail.

"The level of caring and attention he gives to all the details and people is just mind-blowing," she said. "He's done this almost for my whole lifetime. I don't know anybody else with that kind of dedication and commitment."

Hummel said Howard and the other people who work and volunteer for CASA know how hard it is to be a foster kid.

She remembers how every time she would move to a new home, her clothes and belongings would be thrown in a large plastic garbage bag.

"When everything you own is being tossed in a trash bag, it sends the message that you and your stuff are trash. My clothing would smell like trash bags," Hummel said. "CASA held a fundraiser to get luggage, duffel bags and backpacks for kids. It seems small, but it's not."

Howard said it's a privilege to be a CASA volunteer.

"Children are our most precious commodity, and to see children brought into the world under dysfunctional conditions is heart-rending," he said. "And so it's an honor to be part of a team that tries to make some difference in these children's lives."

CASA Executive Director Jennifer Mylenek said Howard is always calm and balanced as he looks out for the best interests of children as well as their families. She called him an anchor of the CASA program in Jackson County, which was founded in 1990.

"I don't know of another CASA program in the state of Oregon that's had a volunteer as long as we've been blessed with Harry," she said. "He's been here 27 years — for as long as the program's actually been in place in Jackson County."

Mylenek said CASA of Jackson County is a nonprofit organization with about 175-180 volunteers.

"We need at least 100 more volunteers," she said. "There are a lot of kids waiting for somebody like Harry or any one of our other volunteers. There are about 500 children on our waiting list."

Volunteers, who have varied educational backgrounds and life experiences, research the background of each assigned case and make recommendations in court about the child's best interests. They also make sure kids get needed services, such as health care, therapy or special education.

Their ultimate goal is to get a child into a safe home — a challenging task given Jackson County's shortage of foster parents.

Hummel said people who can't become foster parents can still help kids by becoming CASA volunteers.

"It's a great opportunity and option for people who can't take a kid into their home," she said.

CASA of Jackson County holds orientations for prospective volunteers every Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. at its office at 613 Market St., Medford. People who decide to become volunteers attend 30 hours of training. The training is scheduled four times per year, with the summer session of classes beginning July 6. Fall sessions start Oct. 2.

For more information, call 541-734-2272 or see www.jacksoncountycasa.org.

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Genevieve Hummel says CASA volunteer Harry Howard cared about her throughout her years in the foster system and now watches out for her foster daughter. [Mail Tribune / Vickie Aldous]