An Oxford woman is working to bring a program to Oxford and Lafayette County that helps provide advocates for abused and neglected children.
Erin Smith, a 2006 Ole Miss graduate, is a volunteer for the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, CASA. CASA helps children who enter the court system due to abuse or neglect find a safe, permanent home.
“Your heart has to be in it, and you have to love what you do,” she said. “… You have to have a passion for child advocacy, because it’s a really tough field.”
Once a child enters the court system, they are assigned a CASA. That adult becomes the bridge between the child and the court system. The CASA ensures that educational, health, and daily needs are met for the child. The CASA gathers information that enables the judge to make the best decisions for the child.
As a CASA, you are assigned one case at a time, so you are able to devote full attention to the needs of that child. In order to become a CASA volunteer, you must be 21.
Last November, Smith began assessing the Oxford community to see if a program would be beneficial here. She spoke with an Oxford judge, and the executive board members of CASA Mississippi to see if they would support the program.
Smith was thrilled to receive news it would be supported, and that she would be able to start the first North Mississippi CASA program. She said this program is the seventh program in the state.
Smith grew up in Jackson and attended Manhattan Academy, where she wore a basketball jersey and a cheerleading skirt. Her love and skill for basketball almost took her to the collegiate level, but she retired from shooting hoops after graduating.
Smith became a member of Kappa Alpha Theta women’s fraternity, where she held leadership positions, such as new member education director and chief recruiting officer before graduation. While attending Ole Miss, Smith was also an active member of the Ole Miss Associated Student Body. She also volunteered with the Leap Frog educational program in Oxford.
After graduating with a degree in business administration, Smith remained in Oxford and became the catering manager for McAlister’s Deli. She returned to Jackson to work at the cooperate office for McAlister’s, but quickly found herself back in Oxford opening her own restaurant named after her and her business partner’s dogs, Frank and Marlee.
But in late 2009, Smith sold her half of Frank and Marlee’s. Today, she runs advertising and marketing for the Oxford Citizen.
Smith has a passion for helping children who cannot fight for themselves. She heard about CASA as a member of Kappa Alpha Theta. Kappa Alpha Theta’s national philanthropy is CASA, and the girls not only learn what the organization does and stands for, they also raise money for the program.
Smith always wanted to volunteer for CASA, but when she moved back to Oxford, the timing wasn’t right. She became involved with CASA about four years ago. When she first began, she thought about starting a program in Oxford. The nearest was in Memphis.
Once she realized starting a program was difficult and time consuming, she decided to become a Memphis volunteer and has been a Memphis advocate the past three years. She has completed five cases since becoming an advocate.
Holly Horton, a UM junior chemistry major, has known Smith since freshmen year.
“Erin is a well-respected member in the Oxford-Lafayette County community,” Horton said. “Erin is also a very passionate and driven worker who puts her full effort in everything that she does.”
Horton is excited for Oxford’s CASA program to open because, like Smith, Horton is a member of Kappa Alpha Theta. She looks forward to working closer with CASA and giving sorority members and the community a better understanding of CASA.
Smith held an interest meeting in April attended by about 20 to 25 people interested in the program. “We’re building this program from the ground up, and that is something they do not give you a manual for,” Smith said.
She said the community will host CASA charity events in the future. The first planned event will be a superhero 5k or 10k because Oxford has a big running community. The next is a gala featuring a silent auction and band, because the community likes to get dressed up for events.