When I first met her circa 1980, Kitty Kocol was a UW-Madison art student who exuded joie de vivre. By the time she got back in touch a few years ago, her ambitions had veered away from art toward social justice, and she had already served as executive director for Milwaukee's Task Force on Family Violence and the Wisconsin Department of Justice's Office of Crime Victim Services.
"I was interested in social justice from the time I was awake," she says. Now the executive director for the Wisconsin Court Appointed Special Advocates Association, Kocol, 51, has managed to sustain her joyful exuberance in a tough job.
At the fulcrum of a statewide CASA infrastructure, Kocol marshals resources for seven CASA programs serving 10 counties - a network encompassing about 350 volunteer court-appointed special advocates for some 675 abused or neglected youths while their cases navigate the courts. Many of the kids live in temporary foster care because they may be unsafe at home.
Determining the permanent living situation that promises the best outcome for each child falls to county judges. Trained CASA volunteers serve as the court's eyes and ears by meeting with parents, caregivers, teachers and other significant figures, but most of all by paying frequent visits to the children they serve, monitoring their situation and advocating for their best interests in court. They often become reliable confidantes for youths whose unstable situations may have convinced them that adults are incapable of commitment.
Kocol is a relentless crusader for the CASA model and for increased resources to serve more children in dire need. She works to generate continued funding at a time when financial support is ever harder to cultivate.
Kocol expresses some aversion to being cited as a hero. But her presence in my pantheon derives in part from the way she represents all those CASA volunteers, who in turn exemplify the people who do so much of the heavy lifting in social services with so little acknowledgment.
"If you're mission-oriented, it's a delicious and wonderful thing to go to work," Kocol says. When it comes to human beings, she adds, "I want them to be well."