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(Courtesy Photo)

(Courtesy Photo)

There’s no gambling when it comes to a child’s future. That’s why Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteers spent 2,549 hours last year advocating for the best interests of 122 abused nd neglected children in Eddy County.

Recently, these dedicated volunteers were honored at an Appreciation and Recognition Dinner at the Riverside Country Club in Carlsbad, where they had the chance to take some risks ─ with poker chips.

In addition to a casino-themed night and dinner, CASA volunteers received many thanks for their tireless efforts, including from the former National CASA Association CEO Michael Piraino. Piraino assured the volunteers they are not alone, as 75,000 CASA organizations exist across the country, serving 250,000 children each year.

“Every one of the things you do says to them, ‘You matter,’” he said. “‘You can be successful, and people will help you.’”

“When you think it’s a coincidence you’re here, you should really think again,” said New Mexico Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, who attended to thank the volunteers for the difficult work they do. “You have to have a heart for it.”

CASA is one of the United Way’s longest-standing partner agencies, according to Linda Dodd, United Way of Carlsbad and South Eddy County executive director, who thanked volunteers for changing the future by giving unselfishly of themselves.

CASA volunteers show the power of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, said Vance Jenkins, CASA board president. They are not only advocates but friends, he said, who take children’s hands and walk with them “to the end of the tunnel.”

Also in attendance at the dinner were members of the Eddy County CASA board and staff, and the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. In addition to recognizing each of the volunteers, the evening included a number of special awards.

The Angel Heart award went to Curtis Economides, a former board member from Artesia who has followed in the footsteps of his father, Greek, and continues to give his time to the program, including raising funds for Christmas gifts for foster children.

The Rookie of the Year award went to Donna Guevara of Carlsbad, who became a CASA volunteer in April 2015 and has already volunteered 127 hours, serving seven children in three cases.

“I love my kids,” she said, thanking her mentors. “I’m overwhelmed.”

The Volunteer of the Year award went to Connie Dunagan of Carlsbad, who was surprised and very appreciative. Since becoming a CASA volunteer in 2007, she has served five children in five cases, giving 849 hours of her time.

Dunagan was presented with a scrapbook filled with letters from family and friends who wrote about the retired teacher’s passion for children. She always treats kids with love and respect, they said, evidencing a “great servant’s heart” and serving as “an advocate for the small, quiet voices that are not always heard.”

Anyone interested in making a positive difference for the county’s most vulnerable children is asked to call 746-6077 in Artesia or 575-887-7966 in Carlsbad.