Interviewed by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
An Oxford resident since 2002, Erin Smith, 38, is the founding executive director of CASA of North Mississippi, an advocacy group for local foster children. The nonprofit’s big CASAblanca New Year’s Eve Gala fundraiser happens in Oxford Dec. 31.
Q: What is CASA of North Mississippi and how long has it been around?
A: CASA of North Mississippi is a nonprofit organization that advocates for abused and neglected children through the service of trained, court-appointed community volunteers. We recruit, train and supervise volunteers who go through a 30-hour pre-service training, get sworn in by the youth court judge and get assigned to court cases involving children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect and are in foster care. We advocate for their best interests and provide resources they need while in foster care, visit with the children regularly and become consistent figures in their lives. Formerly known as CASA of Lafayette County, we started in 2018 but always had the vision to grow. We did that in January 2022 and now serve Lafayette and Lee counties, with plans to expand into Yalobusha, Pontotoc, Union and Marshall counties by the end of 2025.
Q: What inspired you to get involved?
A: I was introduced to CASA as an undergrad at the University of Mississippi and a member of Kappa Alpha Theta. Their national philanthropy is CASA. I knew when I was old enough (you have to be 21 to be a volunteer advocate) I wanted to get involved, but there were no CASA programs in the north part of the state. The closest one was in Memphis, so for four years, I volunteered there; it was then I realized we needed a CASA program in Oxford. I started there and along the way, I found I was genuinely passionate about helping our most vulnerable population, abused and neglected children. At the end of the day, it is about finding your passion for something that you can do 24/7, 365 days a year, and that is what CASA is to me.
Q: Tell us about the New Year’s Eve party.
A: The CASAblanca New Year’s Eve Gala is held at the Powerhouse. We serve a fantastic meal and hold a drawdown (you do not have to be present to win) for a chance to win $5,000. We have casino games, a band and a toast at midnight. Tickets are $100 per person and drawdown tickets are $100. Another annual event is our CASA Superhero Run and Kid’s Fun Run, held on the last Saturday in March. We also host Taters for Tots in Tupelo, which is a baked potato plate drive-thru event that will be held in February. We stay very busy. Our jobs are 24/7, but we love every minute of it.