Former high school principal Elois McGehee remembers what got her started. It was a graduation day at Locke High in Watts more than a decade ago.
"The graduation ceremony was over. I'm leaving school in my car, driving home," she recalled. "Then I see this kid sitting at a bus stop — wearing a cap and gown.
"I thought, 'What kid graduates from high school and doesn't have a single person who comes to the school to celebrate with him?' "
Lots of kids, it turns out.
The boy was one of hundreds of Locke High students in foster care — living not with parents or relatives, but in group homes staffed by employees or with families paid to provide for them.
"I thought, 'This is just not fair,' " McGehee said. "They're alone through no fault of their own. They need somebody to advocate for them."
Ten years later, after she retired, McGehee became that somebody — a court appointed special advocate (CASA), one of 375 volunteers charged with keeping vulnerable children from falling through gaping holes in the foster care system in Los Angeles County.
"You represent your child in every way, shape, fashion and form," said McGehee — from arranging medical care for a fragile toddler to finding an algebra tutor for a failing student.
The CASA program has been around for more than 30 years, relying on public funding and private grants to recruit, train and supervise volunteers. But state budget cuts have been shrinking its funding and eliminated the money this year.
Now, said executive director Dilys Tosteson Garcia, "We have to raise every single dollar we need from private sources."
They managed to raise enough this year to help a record number of children. But Garcia realizes that future fundraising depends on broadening the organization's base of support.
CASA has relied heavily on white, middle-class women as volunteers. But 40% of children in foster care in Los Angeles County are black. So this month, the group held its first recruitment event at Dorsey High in the Crenshaw district, where thousands of black and Latino students live in group homes or with foster families.
"Do it for yourself, or tell somebody about us," Garcia urged the two dozen people who turned out. "Let them know, 'These are our children. This is our responsibility.'"
Samuel Herod shouldered that responsibility 10 years ago. Herod, 58, grew up in South Los Angeles and still lives there. "I see foster homes on every block in my neighborhood" near 39th and Western, he said.
He said he became an advocate because he "was tired of watching [foster children] leave the system not ready for work, not ready for school, with no one teaching them the things that our parents taught me and you."
His first case involved two brothers, 6 and 7, who'd been parceled out to separate homes. He got them reunited. Then he got them adopted by two sisters who each were willing to adopt one boy, "so they'd grow up together," Herod said.
Now he's guiding six young people, from 17 to 21. Some problems are large, as children try to shake off family legacies of addiction and violence. Others are heartbreakingly small.
"I have a girl whose school pictures cost $39, and nobody would pay for them," Herod said. "The group home says, 'It's not our responsibility.' The county says, 'It's not our responsibility.' "
So Herod bought the photos. "Thirty-nine dollars they were arguing over, and they're getting [thousands of dollars] to care for her.... What does that say to a child?"