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CASA Cares: The role of an advocate with Killeen's Garden of Hope

CASA advocates have many roles when they enter a foster child's life. One ranch and resource center in Killeen has become a resource to the children they serve.

BELL COUNTY, Texas — They say a parent's love is unconditional, which is true for Wilfredo Ocasio Jr., his wife and the 90 children they fostered over the course of 11 years.

He had one dream: He wanted to love as many children as possible because that's who he was.

In order to expand on his dream, he opened a foster home in 2016 out in Killeen on a ranch the overlooks hills and rivers.

"I know that this was my dad's dream," Adama Ocasio, his daughter said. "He always helped everyone, and he wanted to help a lot of children."

He even helped Adama Ocasio. When she was 15, her mother was battling an illness that kept her from her six children.

This put Adama Ocasio  and her siblings in the system. Anama Ocasio was pregnant at the time.

As soon as she and her siblings went into the system, Wilfredo Ocasio and his wife got them out, adopting each and every one.

When asked if she would be here today without them, Adama Ocasio replied, "no."

Her foster mother loved her for who she was and who her baby was going to be. Together, they've worked to raise her baby boy.

As a unit, their family grew and grew to the point where the couple had adopted 11 children in total.

Then the day finally came when the ranch opened. It took awhile, but in 2019, they brought in their first foster child.

"He wanted to help children, so he did," Tina Capito, the COO of Garden of Hope, said.

Garden of Hope is a resource center that provides clothes and necessities to foster children, families and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) who need the support for their children. 

The resource center, just 20 minutes from the ranch, is a sanctuary in its own way.

When a child comes to the ranch, they put their handprints on a wall in the resource center with their name and the year they entered next to it in paint.

Credit: Meredith Haas
When children enter the foster care system and come to live at the ranch, they place their hands on this wall to mark the beginning of their journey.

"I think the biggest thing for CASA and for Garden of Hope and for kids in the foster care system is for the community to be aware of the need," Capito said.

In a way, the ranch needs the resource center, as much as it needs it, while CASA needs it all, and vice versa.

CASA's play a vital role in the development of the children that enter the ranch, whether they get there from conception to 17 years old.

A CASA stands by a child's side in a way others can't.

They're there like a friend, mentor, extended family member and most of all, an advocate for the child in court.

Adama Ocasio and Capito see this place and every CASA as a beautiful place.

"The other day a child told me this place was beautiful, so I think it's unique," Adama Ocasio said.

But it's beauty needs help.

Capito said people don't completely understand all that goes in to what they do.

The State of Texas pays foster care parents and facilities like the ranch and resource center only when a child is in the foster care system.

"If we had zero kids, we wouldn't get paid anything," she said.

Capito added that the state is also going through rate monitorization right now and they've determined that they've been underfunding about 19%.

"So facilities like ours, we have to raise probably $300,000 a year to keep operating," she added.

Capito is fully staffed right now for 24 to 32 children and if six children leave tomorrow, she can't tell her staff she doesn't need them one week or the next.

So when they don't have the numbers they're staffed for, they still have to pay that amount of money but they don't get paid from the state.

Then, if she lets staff go, she can't take more kids.

"It's a constant battle to be able to fund the shelter and long term living facility and that's why I don't understand all the criticism as to why we're fundraising all the time," she added.

At the end of the day, Wilfredo Ocasio's legacy lived on through his daughter, grandsons and the children that are afforded a new life at the ranch.

Wilfredo Ocasio died in August, but the love he had for the children will never be lost or forgotten.

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