Thursday nights are rarely stay-at-homes for North Texas non-profits. For instance on Thursday, October 12, while Klyde Warren Park was taking full advantage of the beautiful weather for its Party in the Park, Dallas CASA‘s 2023 Champion of Children Award Dinner was just a block away at The Fairmont Dallas.
The Dallas CASA fundraiser brought together two men from different backgrounds who have championed the rights of foster children. On one hand, featured speaker/author David Ambroz had overcome a childhood of neglect and homelessness to become a national child welfare advocate. On the other hand, Awardee Francois Reihani had never experienced such personal challenges but, upon learning of the problems of foster kids aging out of the system, he had built a company to help such youngsters.
In addition to all of that, there was an announcement about the Judge Barefoot Sanders Champion of Children Award that surprised one of the guests. But more about that later. Here’s a report from the field:
For David Ambroz, the choice to help those on the margins is simple.
“We can be right, or we can help people,” he said, talking about mental illness and poverty and their impacts on children. “At my core, what I believe about America is that we’re better than this.”
Ambroz shared his thoughts with the audience at Dallas CASA’s Champion of Children Award Dinner at The Fairmont Dallas. Author of the heartbreaking memoir “A Place Called Home,” Ambroz described his personal challenges growing up with a severely mentally ill mother and the poverty and homelessness that ensued.
“We condemn people with mental health issues,” he said. “In that condemnation, my siblings and I were the ones punished.”
The trio begged for food, slept on the streets and struggled with profound neglect and abuse. Today, Ambroz is a national poverty and child welfare advocate, an executive with Amazon and a foster dad who hopes to inspire others to action to make life better for young people.
Dallas CASA honored local legend Francois Reihani, owner and founder of La La Land Kind Café, with the 2023 Judge Barefoot Sanders Champion of Children Award.
From an initial meeting at Dallas CASA where Reihani learned about the challenges youth aging out of foster care face, he’s built a company with a mission to employ former foster youth and spread awareness about their needs.
Ambroz pointed out to Chris Lawrence that youth who have been in foster care are twice as likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder as veterans of wars.
“And then at 18 or 20, we usher them to the streets and say ‘Go!’ and wonder why they struggle,” he said. Reihani took his bafflement and frustration at the problem and created a solution.
“Dallas CASA inspired me and changed my life,” Reihani said. “Without Dallas CASA, there would be no La La Land.”
La La Land has grown from an initial shop on Greenville Avenue to 11 stores in Texas and California, and Reihani announced a $20 million investment this summer that will allow further growth.
Guests received a copy of Ambroz’s book and a gift certificate for a cup of coffee at La La Land, along with a yellow rubber duck with a heart and the word “kind.”
The event’s honorary chairs were Fran and Mark Berg. A longtime child advocate for Dallas CASA, Fran held the audience spellbound as she shared her personal story of advocating for three young children for over seven long years. She shared a list of facts and figures about the case, including 13 placement changes, three failed adoptions and 14 psychiatric hospitalizations, before saying “Through all of this, they had one CASA.”
“CASA, by traditional definition, is a physical space,” she said. “But to me, a CASA is a person that gives children a feeling of safety, sense of security and, most importantly, love.”
Happily, because of Fran’s determination and advocacy, all three children have been adopted and are thriving today.
Event co-chairs for the evening were Stephanie and David Krahe, Retta A. Miller and Megan and Tom Sterquell.
Dignitaries at the event included Judge Clay Jenkins and Dr. Theresa Daniel of the Dallas County Commissioners Court. Judges from the child welfare and family law courts also attended, including District Court Judge Cheryl Lee Shannon and Associate Judges Danielle Diaz, Derrick Morrison and Drew Ten Eyck. Former Dallas County Child Welfare Board Chair Marcellene Malouf and her husband Hon. Royal Ferguson also attended. Jan Sanders, a former Dallas CASA volunteer and the widow of Hon. Barefoot Sanders, attended and heard the announcement that her name will be added to the Judge Barefoot Sanders Champion of Children award name going forward.
Many Dallas CASA board members were in the audience, including Mark Berg, David Krahe, Jonathan Bassham, Jamal Carty, Janice Davis, Jim Lozier, Woody McMinn, Scott Orr, Steve Penrose, Paige Richey, Kristy Hoglund Robinson, Nicki Stafford, Teresa Stevenson and Linda Swartz.
* Photo credit: Kristina Bowman Photography