Updated May 23 at 9:07 a.m.
Essex County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), an organization that gives a voice to children in foster care, was the 2011-2012 focus of 's fifth grade community service project.
Three members of Essex County CASA, Debra Makarowski, Carol Costello and Karen Burns, visited Washington School on Friday, May 18 and presented a plaque to the fifth grade class for their efforts. The plaque was placed outside the West Caldwell school at the base of a Giving Tree.
“You have made such a big difference in the lives of those children and in my life too and I want to thank you for that,” Makarowski told the students during the brief ceremony.
The Giving Tree was a student-initiated project for CASA. Before Christmas, a fifth-grade family donated the tree and students hung tags on the tree suggesting gift ideas for children transitioning into foster care. The tree was later planted on the school grounds.
Like a tree, the project continued to grow and flourish as the year progressed.
“Sometimes an idea in life starts really small and when you put your heart around it and your energy around it, it becomes much bigger,” Washington Principal Barbara Adams said.
Students raised $1,200 throughout the year with a number of fundraisers, such as coin jars, a parent vs. student volleyball game and the sale of duct-tape roses.
In addition, the fifth graders donated 19 backpacks filled with personal items for children in foster care. The colorful bags were stuffed with books, journals, blankets, small toys and toiletries.
"It gives them just a little bit of something to call their own," said Leigh Harris, a Washington parent/volunteer, explaining that children often enter the foster system with little or no personal belongings.
Harris said this was the first year CASA was chosen for the fifth grade community service project. CASA's mission, she said, tied in with a book the students read earlier in the school year called The Pinballs, which deals with the struggles children face in foster care.
"In previous years the concept of foster children went over the kids' heads," Harris said. "Now they understand what they are going through."
To learn more about Essex County Casa, visit www.casaessex.org.