Good morning everyone! Thank you so much for having me!
As Sabrina mentioned, my name is Courtney Walter. I grew up in Elizabeth, Colorado, which was once a small town, but now has a Walmart – which is big time in a town like that. My brother, Brandon, is 16 months younger than me and was and still is my best friend. Shortly after graduating high school, I decided to go to college at Colorado State (GO RAMS) and graduated with a degree in business. It took me some time and a few changes in majors, but I made it through!
Right before graduation, I married the love of my life, Shane, and we have been going strong for six whole years now! I then jumped straight into a career in corporate America, went on to buy and eventually sell two small businesses in Larimer County, became a mom, quit my career in corporate America, and I am currently staying at home with our son Axton and working on building our dream business.
As I wrote this speech and pondered being up on this stage in front of you, I had to pinch myself. I asked myself over and over again – “My goodness, Courtney, how did you end up here? Crowds of 300 people are not your thing.” But you know what? I know exactly why I’m here. Because I believe with my entire heart that every story has a purpose and every painful experience can be used for good, and if we don’t tell our stories – we are doing the world a disservice. My story is a story of redemption – a story of strength – and a story of hope.
Now, how I actually ended up here is rather serendipitous – you see Sabrina lives just across the street from me and my son’s baby book ended up in her mailbox. She came over to drop it off one day and we got to talking, so naturally I asked her what she did, and she said she was the Director of CASA for Larimer County. And you know what? I knew what it was! In fact, I had a CASA! And then I told her – I wouldn’t be where I am today without my CASA. I think she was a bit surprised to hear that – one – I knew what the organization was and – two – that I actually had one myself. You see, if you look at this picture of me with my family, my guess is that you wouldn’t know that I was a product of a broken childhood.
My dad was well-known in the community for a couple of things – he built some of the best homes in the county, he loved being a father, and boy-oh-boy did he have a temper. He believed that women should stay at home, discipline should be swift and forceful, and children should act like adults. He loved us. My mom stayed at home with us, helped my dad build homes, and also had quite the temper, but was very meticulous about when and to whom she would reveal it. She loved us. But, this had the makings of a seriously dysfunctional relationship – so dysfunctional that I cannot recall a single memory of them getting along.
One of my earliest memories was when I was in first grade and we were living in a camper trailer in the garage while my parents finished building our house. My brother and I were deep in sleep when a loud noise woke me up from outside of the trailer. I got up to see what it was and as I opened the door I saw my mom and my dad standing there, blood dripped down my dad’s face – my mom holding one of her hands to her cheek. Then they looked at me, told me that my mom had fallen, and to go back to bed. I complied. But I knew she hadn’t fallen. The next morning, we woke up to a deep cut down my dad’s face and a bruise down the entire left side of my mom’s face in the shape of a hand. She dropped us off at school and I remember being so nervous about what people would think – my friends, the teachers, the other parents. I had known they were fighting, but this was the first time that everyone else would know too and I was terrified for our future.
Around this time is when I started feeling, as a child, a heightened responsibility to take care of myself and my brother. I didn’t want to be a reason that my parents would fight or a source of stress for them. I stopped asking my mom and dad for help with school and school projects. I remember needing a baby picture for a project in second grade and not having the guts to ask them to look for it.
For the next couple years, we became very familiar with the local police officers and notorious in the community for domestic violence issues. So notorious, most of my friends were not allowed to stay at my house overnight. I remember the day that my mom finally decided to leave my dad – my brother stayed with him and I went with her. I don’t exactly remember why I chose to go with my mom, as I was afraid of them both – the only explanation I can recall is that my dad’s voice sounded meaner when he was mad. We stayed in a women’s safe house in a nearby town – similar to what crossroads safe house used to be – while my mom tried to figure everything out. I was afraid. Afraid of my dad, of being around my mom for too long, of what would happen to my brother, who would protect him? My dad hunted, but never found us and soon after, my mom found a place for us to live and filed for divorce.
Divorce. A word that many children fear, but I longed for it. And it was finally happening. Arrangements were made for us to live between the two houses, mom would pay for glasses and dad would pay for braces, you know the drill. It felt like the magic pill for our family – we could finally be happy. Unfortunately, in abusive homes, there usually isn’t a magic pill to solve everything.
As time went on and the dust settled, it seemed like they needed someone else to channel their aggression toward.
My dad would require us to stay up cleaning all night on a school night if our rooms weren’t cleaned properly. One time he put a deadbolt on my door as punishment for something I’d done and I’d have to go to school without makeup or fresh clothes. Eventually, he threw me across a room.
And my mom – her abuse was mostly verbal and about three centimeters away from my face. She’d call me horrible names, tell me I was fat, stupid, ugly.
My grades started to fall, my appetite slowed, I was involved in fights at school, I started losing friends.
At the end of the week somewhere in the middle of my eighth-grade year, I had lost my glasses for – what seemed like – the 50th time. I was so nervous – I searched everywhere. And as Friday afternoon creeped up on me, I began to get scared. I did not want to go home; I knew what was coming. I arranged to go to my friend Mandy’s house instead – I called my mom to ask permission to go.
It was like she knew, but I told her I still had them with me.
After a few nights sweating it out at my friend’s house, I finally had to go home on Sunday. The moment I walked in the door, my mom asked to see my glasses. And of course, I didn’t have them. I had lied. There was nothing to prepare me for the fury that followed. She used everything she could get her hands on and didn’t stop until she felt like she had gotten her point across. I screamed for my brother to call 9-1-1. He stood in the next room, sobbing, and paralyzed in fear.
The next day, I went to school again and in gym class, my bruises – all very well-hidden underneath my clothes – brought me to tears doing sit-ups. My friend, Mandy knew what had happened. When she caught a glimpse as I was changing out of my gym clothes to confirm her suspicions, she marched straight to the school counselor’s office and turned it in.
A police officer came to the school and took pictures of my bruises. I was assigned socials workers, therapists, a guardian ad litem, and a CASA.
I’m not sure I could have given this speech with such resolve ten years ago or even two years ago. Until now, I have most certainly normalized my parents’ behavior to cope with the trauma. I’ve written it off as run-of-the-mill discipline or “spanking”. I’d hear other children’s stories and I get sick to my stomach thinking about how anyone could ever cause a child that kind of pain. And now, I have a child of my own. It physically pains me to think that he could ever be hurt like that.
Abuse is so often a cycle, and it was in my mom’s case. You see, children from abusive homes can go down one of two paths – to continue the cycle – or to break it. In my family, it stops with me.
Why? Because I had people in my life who cared enough to know me and to champion me. My CASA, was the first person appointed to my case that asked me what I wanted and wanted to know what would make me happy. She asked me what my hobbies were, what I wanted to be when I grew up, and she cared about the answers. There is not enough to be said for the impact that a solid, stable, reliable adult can have on a child.
It communicates that someone cares. It communicates that there is a future that doesn’t involve violence. It communicates that uncontrollable anger is not normal. It communicates that they don’t have to live in fear. That love is not expressed that way.
Following this incident, I was removed from my mother’s home with weekend visitation and I was placed in my father’s home full time. I am not standing in front of you to say that there was a single magic pill that solved it all. My brother and I went on to experience much more loss, we made decisions involving drugs and alcohol use that we can never take back – we grieved, we grew, we recovered, and now I am so happy to report that we are thriving.
As I reflect on what I went through, I know without any doubt that there are a just a handful of things that saved me – my faith, my brother, my youth pastor, one high school teacher, and my CASA.
There are over 300 children in Larimer County each year involved in a case that need a CASA and don’t have one. 300.
The good news is we can all do our part. I have recently completed the screening and training to become a CASA myself, I’ll be sworn in in a few weeks and I am beyond thrilled.
Not only that, but I’m standing here in front of you today, bearing the most intimate parts of my story in hopes that you will see the impact this organization can make on our most vulnerable youth. Together, we can show these kids that there is light at the end of the tunnel. That the “white-picket fence, happy marriage, children, college degree, and career” or whatever “the dream” is are all more than achievable.
CASA is worth investing in – your sacrifice, your donations, your support, and your precious time are so meaningful and so worthwhile. To think that one adult, one volunteer, could change the course of the life of even one child and give them hope, is reason enough.