Back in 2012, La Chantay Sheppard might have seemed an unlikely candidate to get a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). She was a straight-A high school student and an athletic standout, plus she had firm plans to go to college.
But that’s exactly what caught Barbara Bruner’s attention. At the time, Barbara was doing case assessment as a volunteer for CASA of Los Angeles, trying to help determine which foster children most needed a responsible adult in their lives.
“When I read her file, I thought, ‘This is a girl who could really benefit from having a CASA, someone to help her take the next step,'” Barbara says. “When I suggested it to my supervisor, she said, ‘Why don’t you do it?'”
“I don’t think there were any particular problems going on,” La Chantay says. “It was more that the court wanted me to have a sort of guide because I was on the success path, you might say.”
And La Chantay herself wanted to leave nothing to chance. At her first meeting with Barbara, she laid out her concerns.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to be your typical foster kid,'” Barbara remembers. “When I asked her what she meant, she said, ‘I don’t want to get pregnant. I don’t want to drop out of high school. I don’t want to get involved with a gang’—the things she worried most people associated with foster youth.”
La Chantay had been in the dependency court system since she was 5. She spent a short time with relatives after she was removed from her mother’s home, but she had been in foster care most of her life when Barbara was assigned to her, in her junior year.
By that time, she had already developed her shortlist of colleges. At the top was UC Davis, for its veterinary medicine program. It was an emotional choice of a discipline but also a reasoned one, for after years of heartbreak and feeling alone, she knew she had trouble trusting people.
“Animals have never asked for anything,” she says, “but to be loved.”
Over the next year, La Chantay applied to 11 schools. Barbara wrote letters of reference for her, reviewed her essays, and helped her stay on top of deadlines, but La Chantay did the legwork. And their combined diligence paid off—La Chantay got into 10 of those 11, including UC Davis.
She was feeling content at that point, but Barbara wasn’t.
“I’m a procrastinator,” La Chantay confesses. “Whenever Barbara would come see me, she would tell me about scholarships and she would work with me to stay on top of the applications. She was like a facilitator. Without her, I know I wouldn’t have gotten them in on time.
“It wasn’t just that, though. She was also a friend, like another mother. She really cared.”
That would come into play in other areas too. For example, during one stretch in her senior year, La Chantay had been clashing with her foster mother over a minor issue—household chores—and her foster mother had filed a seven-day notice to try to have her placed in a different home. La Chantay was thriving at school, and changing homes could have been terribly disruptive. At the time, however, she didn’t seem to care.
“La Chantay had a really good sense of delayed gratification, of working toward a goal,” Barbara says. “So we [Barbara and La Chantay’s social worker] would remind her that these are small things. If you can surmount this minor obstacle, you’ll probably get to go to the college of your choice.”
It worked, and La Chantay stayed both in her foster home and at her high school, and she graduated with a 4.3 G.P.A. (having received extra credit for advanced placement classes).
She also received three scholarships—one from her high school, one from the Aaron Ruben Scholarship Fund, and one from the Change a Life Foundation.
La Chantay is now at UC Davis, and she and Barbara remain in frequent contact. She’s also still in touch with her former foster family.
When she was interviewed for this story, she was adamant that another historical detail be included.
“I have one other thing I have to mention,” she said. “I was an avid basketball player in high school, and I felt like I had finally found my favorite thing in the world. But I was so used to being alone, and when I would ask the adults in my life, ‘Will you go to one of my games?’ they kept saying they had to work, and it kind of hurt. It felt like nobody ever cared. It was just me against the world.
“So when Barbara came to watch me play, it was the most amazing thing. Finally someone came and supported me. I just didn’t have that growing up. She was the first person to go to one of my games, and I don’t think she understands how much I appreciate it.”
Which then brought her to her final point.
“A CASA is there to help you in any way that you want. But they can be more than just a helper. They can become family if you let them.”