CASA

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they are wor­thy of noth­ing bet­ter,” she said. “So a child who is hurt by her mother typ­i­cally is feel­ing unlov­able, un­wor­thy and that of­ten, of­ten can quickly move into feel­ing hope­less.”

Vol­un­teers do “some­thing more” in ad­di­tion to giv­ing in­for­ma­tion to judges, “we show up for these chil­dren, we get to know them re­ally well, we lis­ten to them and we give a voice to their needs, and some­where in that process is where this magic hap­pens.”

CASA of the Mid-Shore’s first vice pres­i­dent, Stephanie Nagel, opened the lun­cheon Fri­day by say­ing child­hood is “a time of imag­i­na­tion and wishes and dreams.”

“Wishes are mag­i­cal things, whether they’re in chil­dren or adults. There are threads that run through all of child­hood that you can re­mem­ber and ev­ery child can re­late to. The for­tu­nate ones wish for treats and toys and laugh­ter, and this morn­ing my stu­dents wished for snow,” Nagel said. “The un­for­tu­nate ones wish for these things but so much more. They wish for safety and se­cu­rity. They wish for op­por­tu­nity, ac­knowl­edge­ment, en­cour­age­ment.

“In or­der for them to keep wish­ing for these things, even when life keeps beat­ing them down, telling them no, they need hope,” she said. “Hope is more than a wish. Hope is not pre­tend­ing that trou­bles don’t ex­ist; it is the con­vic­tion that they won’t last for­ever, that hurts will be healed and dif­fi­cul­ties over­come, that we will be led out of dark­ness and into the sun­shine. CASA is about bring­ing hope to chil­dren whose wishes would oth­er­wise go in vain. It is the voices that say you are wor­thy, you are worth the ef­fort.”

The main speaker for the event was Johnny O’Brien, a long­time East­ern Shore res­i­dent whose per­sonal story “val­i­dates our core mis­sion at CASA that it is ab­so­lutely pos­si­ble to make a dif­fer­ence in the lives of vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren,” Daven­port said.

O’Brien fo­cused his story on the im­por­tance of ad­vo­cacy for chil­dren, “be­cause there’s magic in ad­vo­cacy when it meets ad­ver­sity and cre­ates the hope.”

He was 3 years old when he and his 5-year-old brother Frankie were sent to the Her­shey In­dus­trial School for Or­phan Boys (now called Mil­ton Her­shey School), after be­ing told their par­ents died in a tragic car ac­ci­dent.

The school be­came O’Brien’s home for the rest of his child­hood, but not his brother’s. At the school, the older teens harshly bul­lied the younger kids, and Frankie did not fare well there.

Frankie was “be­gin­ning to pull back” and “be­gin­ning to hide in the evenings” and at school dur­ing lunch. O’Brien tried to stand up for him be­cause he knew his brother wouldn’t fight back, but his be­hav­ior started to get worse, “and he was re­ally shut­ting down.”

One day, O’Brien came home from school and Frankie wasn’t there. He was sent to the state asy­lum, with­out the op­por­tu­nity to give his brother a last good­bye.

“The only rea­son I re­mained and Frankie didn’t was that I had a ter­rific teacher who took me un­der his wing. As I got into sports a lit­tle bit later I had coaches who were my ad­vo­cates, who gave me hope,” O’Brien said. “After I lost Frankie, I de­cided to dou­ble-down on ev­ery­thing that I did. I wanted to prac­tice harder for sports. I wanted to study longer for my aca­demics. I wanted to not only join but be­come the leader of ev­ery ac­tiv­ity and ev­ery sport.”

“From the guilt that I had about not do­ing more for Frankie, and the grief that came from los­ing him, I be­came ob­sessed (with be­ing the best), in a way, but most im­por­tantly what hap­pened was that I had a high school coach and two high school teach­ers who said Johnny, you have so much po­ten­tial, you have so much inside you to give, and no one ever told Frankie that,” O’Brien said. “And they nur­tured me and they gave me hope and they coached me.”

O’Brien wound up at­tend­ing Princeton Univer­sity, but be­fore he left the Her­shey School, he was told his fa­ther was alive and serv­ing a life sen­tence in prison for mur­der­ing his mother.

But peo­ple through­out his col­lege ed­u­ca­tion con­tin­ued to ad­vo­cate for him and en­cour­age him, and after grad­u­a­tion and gath­er­ing some work ex­pe­ri­ence, he later started a com­pany called Re­nais­sance Lead­er­ship Com­pany, teach­ing ex­ec­u­tives of For­tune 500 com­pa­nies how to be bet­ter lead­ers to their em­ploy­ees.

O’Brien also even­tu­ally led a re­bel­lion with other alumni against the Mil­ton Her­shey School, after the pres­i­dent there started tak­ing the school off its mis­sion and turn­ing it into more of a mid­dle-class prep school, while it was orig­i­nally only for the need­i­est and most vul­ner­a­ble kids. The alumni won the re­bel­lion, the board and pres­i­dent were taken out, and O’Brien was named pres­i­dent of the Mil­ton Her­shey School, work­ing to turn it into a “kinder, more gen­tle” place for the chil­dren.

“Ad­ver­sity isn’t bad. In fact, the lack of ad­ver­sity is bad. Ad­ver­sity is ac­tu­ally a good thing when it’s cou­pled with ad­vo­cacy,” O’Brien said. “When you com­bine be­ing aban­doned, be­ing un­wanted, be­ing unloved with ad­vo­cacy and car­ing and coach­ing and men­tor­ing, some­thing mag­i­cal hap­pens and it be­comes one of the great­est ad­van­tages that a young per­son can have in their lives.”

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