Karen Scussel doesn’t have children of her own, but the unassuming business executive is a “mom” in the eyes of her foster kids.
Offering an empathetic and nonjudgmental approach, the Los Altos resident has forged strong relationships with 17 Santa Clara County foster children over her 18 years as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) under the nonprofit Child Advocates of Silicon Valley. With Scussel as the organization’s executive director the past seven years, Child Advocates has grown and connected more CASAs with kids in need of an adult friend.
Scussel’s efforts led the agency to honor her as a “CASA Hero and Legend” for her nearly two decades at Child Advocates, which also included roles as board member, interim director of volunteer services, interim director of programs and educational advocacy supervisor. Scussel was recognized April 6 at the agency’s Spring Event.
The acknowledgment comes as Scussel prepares to retire as executive director. Child Advocates introduced Frederick Ferrer as its new CEO in February.
“We have just completed a strategic plan, so the timing is right,” Scussel said last week. “We’re really lucky to get a great new person.”
Scussel will prove a tough act to follow. The former Hewlett-Packard and Agilent executive oversaw Child Advocates’ expansion from a $1.1 million annual budget in 2012 to $2.4 million today – one of the largest CASA programs in the state. The agency grew from serving 595 foster children in fiscal year 2014 to 905 children in 2018. In fiscal year 2019, Child Advocates plans to serve nearly 1,000 foster children and recruit, train and support 700 CASA volunteers in Santa Clara County.
“Karen is an exceptional leader who achieved the monumental challenge of aggressively growing the number of children we serve while accumulating financial resources for future investments,” said Cassio Conceicao, board chairman for Child Advocates. “The board has always been impressed by the passion she brings to work every day and by the results she delivers year after year. She has been a true inspiration to all of us.”
Investing in relationships
Scussel’s real magic, however, is in her relationships with the kids. She remains in contact with many of her foster children, including her first, Deborah Rutledge, whom she met when Rutledge was 13. The now-31-year-old currently enjoys a successful career in the U.S. Air Force.
“What I remember about Karen was her smile, her encouragement and her positivity; there was never any judgment about my situation,” Rutledge said. “Most importantly, Karen provided moments of relief during a very dark time. She let me know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Scussel will continue to mentor kids, work she still enjoys immensely.
“I enjoy children, I enjoy helping others,” said the modest Scussel, who admitted to being a bit uncomfortable about being honored for her work. “I enjoy helping people do things they didn’t think were possible.”
Scussel pointed out that many of the foster children she’s worked with are from troubled backgrounds.
“Many don’t see a future for themselves,” she said.
By meeting with children a few hours a week, Scussel has witnessed how being supportive by simply showing up can transform lives. She recalled seeing a boy who was withdrawn and having problems at school evolve into an outstanding student with a promising future.
“He didn’t see that for himself,” she said.
One key moment, couched in levity but also proving impactful, came when Scussel told the boy, “I get 10 minutes of nagging per visit.”
The circumstances surrounding some of these children’s lives “can make you sad,” Scussel acknowledged. “A lot of it is economics – multiple generations of neglect.”
On the other hand, Scussel noted that being a CASA is “pretty easy to do and can make a huge difference.” She’s heard it described as “providing moments of relief during a difficult time.”
She said the hardest experience for her was undergoing the initial 30-hour CASA training program, but key lessons emerged, such as withholding judgment and always being supportive. CASAs are asked to make a one-year commitment to each child.
Taking note that May is Foster Care Awareness Month, Scussel pitches Child Advocates to potential volunteers.
“If people have an interest in supporting children, this is the program (to be in),” she said.
Child Advocates of Silicon Valley is an annual recipient of the Town Crier Holiday Fund. To volunteer and for more information, visit bemyadvocate.org.