DANVILLE — Katalyna Thomas has always had an interest in helping the abused and neglected, and she was able to do that when she did pro bono work for domestic violence victims while in law school.
Now Thomas is helping abused and neglected children as the new executive director of CASA of Vermilion County.
The Urbana woman took over the reins of the non-profit organization on Nov. 26. She succeeds Paul Gallagher, who left the position at the end of September.
Her educational background, work experience and enthusiasm made her a good fit for the job, board President Jane Dobbles said.
"She's just a real go-getter and she has made a very impressive start," said Dobbles, who pointed out that Thomas already has negotiated a lower phone rate, worked on the website, gotten the holiday newsletter to the printer and started pouring over the organization's grants in her first nine days on the job.
And "with this kind of work, our employees have to have the head for the work, but they also have to have the heart for it," she continued, adding Thomas has both.
The Court Appointed Special Advocates program recruits, trains and supervises community volunteers who serve as advocates for abused and neglected children in the foster care system. Vermilion County's program was established in 2007, and advocates began working with children the following year.
This year, the organization — which has an annual budget of about $80,000, a paid director and an advocate coordinator and 50 volunteer advocates — served 90 children, ranging from newborns to teens. Of the advocates, 33 have active cases.
A Chicago area native, Thomas earned bachelor degrees in history and political science from the University of Illinois in 2003. She graduated cum laude from the UI College of Law in 2007.
She served as a family law attorney with Robert Dodd & Associates of Champaign, now Dodd & Maatuka LLC, for 1 years, and then took off some time to have a baby.
When Thomas learned of the CASA opening, she saw it as an opportunity to combine her background and her interest.
"And I like the challenge of helping a small non-profit organization get on its feet and helping the community," she said.
Thomas said the national CASA organization launched a campaign to serve all abused and neglected children throughout the U.S. by 2020. In Vermilion County, there are more than 300 children in foster care.
In order to meet the national goal, Thomas wants to double the number of children that are served locally in the next two years.
To do that, Thomas said the organization must recruit more advocates, who — after receiving 30 hours of rigorous training — gather information about the child or children to whom they're assigned by talking to caretakers, caseworkers, teachers and other service providers and then report their findings to a judge, who uses the information to help make decisions about that child's case.
And, she said, CASA must also hire another advocate coordinator as they are limited to overseeing 30 advocates. In the past, the director has helped manage the caseload.
"The biggest challenge to doing that has been funding," Thomas said, who plans to work on pursuing grants, private donations and raising the organization's profile in the community.
"One of my goals is to implement a fundraising campaign that will allow us to hire another advocate coordinator, recruit more volunteer advocates ... and meet the goal of serving all of the children here."