With Philanthropy Day comes talk of service events coming up around the University of Central Florida.
One sorority is lacing up its shoes in preparation.
“Neglected and abused children is a huge issue," said Sarah Jacobi, member of Kappa Alpha Theta. "There’s a lot of kids who are too afraid to voice what’s going on in their life."
Jacobi, senior legal studies major, was once one of those scared children, too afraid to speak up.
“There was a lot of times where I was afraid. I was afraid of what people would think of me,” Jacobi said. “I was afraid that maybe it wouldn’t matter if I told somebody, that I would still just have to deal with the abuse.”
What started out as verbal abuse quickly got physical. Jacobi still remembers the pain her father put her through. After Jacobi’s parents were divorced, weekend visits with her dad seemed to be inescapable.
“I tried to refuse to go with him, for one of his weekend visits and I was wearing my hair in a ponytail and he reached through and grabbed me by my ponytail and drug me out the front yard,” Jacobi said.
That memory is forever etched in her mind, but one day Jacobi found the courage to speak up to a complete stranger.
“I was in the car with him and he had thrown my phone out the window and he hit me across the face,” Jacobi said. “He then had me go into Winn Dixie with him and I saw a woman in the aisle, who was ahead of me, and I kind of got her attention and mouthed the words ‘help me’.”
That woman reported Jacobi’s cry for help and police tracked her father down. From then on, Jacobi was given the help and support she needed through a program that helped her escape a dark past.
And for the 600,000 other children passing through foster care each year, many find hope through the same program known as Court Appointed Special Advocates, Guardian Ad Litem.
“We are advocates for children who are abused and neglected and come into the court system because of the abuse or neglect." said Sharon Graham, GAL circuit 18 director covering Seminole County and Brevard County. "And we are the ones who represent the child. We are the only people who let the courts know what the child wants, but then we also have the duty to say what the child needs."
With the issue doubling in Central Florida, CASA now serves 25,000 children. Their goal is to make sure each child’s voice is heard and they feel safe, happy and loved. Research has even found, that children who have a Guardian Ad Litem have more stability and success in their life.
Jacobi can attest to the comfort she felt in her Guardian Ad Litem, a volunteer not even paid, to get her away from her father.
“It meant the world to me to have this guardian kind of walk me through this process and to help me understand what was going on,” Jacobi said. “She made me feel like he wasn’t going to hurt me anymore and that she was going to do whatever it took to make sure I was going to be in a safe environment. And that really made a huge difference to me.”
For Linda Clark, an eight-year guardian volunteer, she said she wouldn’t trade the rewarding experience for the world.
“It has changed my life," Clark said. "When I get to go out and work with the kids, build a relationship with them and restore their faith in grown-ups listening to them is priceless. So, the opportunity to take their words and express them to the court is big. It’s been a great opportunity, and I absolutely love it.”
Jacobi also found her place at UCF with Kappa Alpha Theta after discovering their philanthropy was CASA.
“Once I got to college, I didn’t know that Kappa Alpha Theta’s main philanthropy was CASA," Jacobi said. "So when I was sitting there during recruitment on philanthropy day, learning about this, I kind of just broke down in the back and was like, 'Wow, this is where I belong,'” Jacobi said.
During her time as a Theta sister, Jacobi has sought out to help those who have gone through similar abuse to her.
“Our efforts and the money we raise, it really does make a huge impact and I’m living testament to that,” Jacobi said.
So together, Jacobi and Theta are finding their inner superhero by lacing up their capes and preparing their 6th Annual Superhero 5K benefiting all CASA children. The 5K will take place this Saturday, Nov. 19.
Their efforts and money raised surely don’t go unnoticed.
“Because of them there are children out there who have better self-esteem, which means they’ll be more successful in life,” Graham said. “They really matter in a child’s life and without them the child wouldn’t be able to do some of the things we think of, like ride a bike, do sports or just go out and be a kid. They may not know it, but a child feels the love that they do for them.”
With old memories flooding in, Jacobi remains thankful for the new start Guardian Ad Litem gave her.
“I would really just say thank you," Jacobi said. "I mean, I wouldn’t have realized what my calling was in life. I wouldn't have met people that I have in my life right now. I have a great life, I have amazing friends. I have an organization that backs something that’s so close to me. I just can’t thank her enough.”