CASA at the Club

Maria Long, Executive Director of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), snagged Captain Fred Benko, who owns and operates Santa Barbara’s premier whale-watching concern – the Condor Express – as a member of her board of directors after he attended last year’s CASA at the Coral [Casino] fundraiser that featured the music of Papa Doo Run Run. After Fred was quoted in Montecito Journal saying that he thought the event was “one of the best parties of 2006,” Maria asked him to join the board, where he now serves as vice-president of development. He is also in charge of this year’s “CASA at the Club” fundraiser, scheduled for Saturday night April 21 at Montecito Country Club (Coral Casino is closed for renovation).

This is no black-tie affair; in fact, it is anything but. Dress is surf attire; “You can wear your flip-flops and Hawaiian shirt,” Fred says during an interview at Montecito Country Club where he was joined by Maria Long. He advises attendees to “wear something you can dance in, because you’re definitely going to want to dance.” He says his event committee has “gone way overboard” in preparation and decoration for the affair, and names those who’ve pitched in to make it happen: Lin Aubuchon, MJ Franco, Melinda Goodman, Erin Johansson, Sue Neuman, Phyllis Noble, Donna Reeves, Catherine Remak, Jessica Schaeman, and Betsy Turner. Fred notes too that many of the volunteers are not even board members, but nevertheless, “they’re looking out after every aspect of this: where the tables are going to be placed, the color of the lights, where the sand castles are going to be placed, where the bamboo grass will come up through the lobby, even where the spotlight will be on the hula dancers.” Mike Stoker is co-chair of the Event Committee and Diana Starr Langley and Jeff Barry (last year’s major domos) are honorary chairs.

An added attraction of the event promises to be the ‘Blue Room’ with its Plexiglas bar, where the silent auction will be held and where one of the event’s two ‘special signature drinks’ will be served. “Alice’s Passion Punch” was named for Alice Krebs, who is sponsoring and underwriting it along with her husband, George Krebs, and “Ron’s Double Bogey,” is being sponsored by Diana Starr Langley and Ron Alex.

Other sponsors include many companies, individuals, and institutions that committed to underwrite a portion of CASA at the Club after attending an invitation-only Donor Reception held at The Dreier Collection in February. For example, Ken Thompson is paying the $10,000 fee for the band’s performance and has asked only that he be allowed to sit in on the drums for a number or two (the band said okay). Because of generous underwriting responses like Thompson’s, “whatever is raised now goes right to the kids,” Fred says. Another welcome donation is the stage, which has been underwritten by David Lack of Lack Construction; he also underwrote the food and some of the lighting, allowing many sponsors to see “their name in [GoBo] lights, instead of the typical signage,” says Maria.

She is still looking for ‘table sponsors,’ like one for a 10-person $7,500 Big Kahuna table that comes with “your own personal wahine” – a waitress who will go and fetch anything for the Big Kahunas and will generally take care of them and pamper them during the event – an open bar (beer and wine is complimentary for all, but mixed drinks are extra, except for Big Kahunas), and acknowledgement in the program and on the website ( COX Communications has purchased a Big Kahuna table and there are two more “pending.” “Hot Dogger” 8-person tables ($5,000) are available for sponsorship, as are a number of $2,800 tables for six. The cost to recruit, screen, train and support an advocate to be matched to a child going through foster care is $2,800. “The Dude,” a $1,000 high-top table for four, is also up for sponsorship.

Maria says they’ve “got special dancers coming in to delight both men and women.” The Blue Room Lounge, underwritten by CountryWide Home Loans, is going to be its own little ecosystem; if people want to escape the loud dance-party atmosphere they can go lounge in the Blue Room, where surf movies will play and where Alice’s Passion Punch will be served at the Tropical Bar.

Last year’s event was not only a fundraising success, but it was also one of the few Montecito events where people continued to hang out long after the auction had ended and the musicians had left. By 11:30, as the Four Seasons wait staff began taking tables away, there were still perhaps as many as 100 people sitting around (then standing as chairs were removed), talking, laughing, nursing drinks, trying to prolong the energy of the evening. In Montecito, many people begin drifting home from such events beginning around 9:30 pm; by 10 pm, it’s generally all over but the sweeping. Not so for the CASA at the Coral event: “They had to kick ‘em out at midnight,’ Fred says laughing, adding that he believes “the same thing is going to happen this year. We’ve warned the [Montecito Country] club that we’d be around until probably midnight.”

Fundraising Reasons

“We’ve got a hundred children on [the CASA] waiting list right now,” Maria says, and informs us there are 160 fully trained advocates so far, with another 25 CASAs graduating on April 16, and another training class going on in North County. In order to facilitate the process of becoming a CASA, Maria has instituted an independent study program. “If they can’t do the class, they can do independent study with our new Case Manager-Advocate Trainer Talia Boggio,” Maria says.

The caseload is growing. “There are one hundred kids that have been assigned to CASA that we can’t cover right now,” Fred laments. “We don’t have the staff to do it; we don’t have the advocates trained.” By next year, the number of children entering the child welfare services is expected to increase by 26%, and another 20% by 2009, meaning there will be over a thousand kids in the system in need of an advocate.

Advocates are volunteers; they are paid nothing. “When an advocate is assigned to CASA by a judge or by child welfare services system or by the children’s attorney, it’s only in the most extreme, severe, and traumatic cases,” Maria relates. “So that’s what our advocates do,” she continues, “they take on the toughest cases, the toughest roles, and when the judge needs to see a more in-depth picture of a child’s life, that’s when a CASA is assigned.”

“Once these kids are taken from their family,” Fred adds, “if they don’t have a CASA, they’re thrown into a court system with an attorney who doesn’t know very much about their family history or anything else about them, a judge that is just looking at a fact sheet in front of him and that’s all he knows, and nobody else to represent him. It has to be a frightening thing for a kid.”

There are three fundamental reasons for a judge to remove a child from his family: abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Once removed, the kids find themselves in either emergency foster care, emergency group homes, or emergency shelters. “ And that’s where the role of the CASA comes in,” Maria says. It is up to a child’s CASA to help find as safe a home as possible, whether it is back with the family if they’ve got their act together, or an aunt, or wherever. It is the CASA’s responsibility to help see to it that the child’s needs are met, including dental, medical, educational, or other needs. “That’s what our CASAs do,” says Maria, “their mandate is to investigate that child’s entire world.”

CASAs are court appointed, so they are not only protected as far as liability goes, but they are also fingerprinted and given background checks. The AOC (Administrative Office of the Courts) is the “mothership” of CASA and both monitors and regulates the program. AOC oversees the more than 80,000 California children in foster care.

The reason CASA must raise funds is because while the program is state-mandated it is not state-funded. By law, children placed with a CASA are required to remain anonymous to the rest of the world. Fred points out that it is sometimes difficult to raise money for anonymous kids.

If one were to volunteer as a CASA, Maria says the time commitment is at least one year, and, depending upon the severity of the case, an advocate spends from one to ten hours a week, and five hours a week on average. “A lot of the CASAs stay with these kids through their formative years,” Maria says, noting that without their guidance, many of these kids “would end up on the street,” but because of CASAs, often find themselves attending college instead. Some of those success stories will be told by the kids at the April 21 event.

The Case of Fred Benko

Fred Benko was drawn to CASA partly – or chiefly – because of his own early life. His mother was a divorced single mom who worked as a “barrage balloon” seamstress at a B.F. Goodrich plant during WWII. “During that era,” Fred relates, “she really couldn’t afford to keep her kid, so I got shopped around a lot. There wasn’t a big foster care network at that time.” He lived with aunts and grandparents, “whoever could afford another mouth to feed.” He says it didn’t bother him because he liked most of the people he stayed with. He spent a couple of summers on a muck farm as a kid weeding radish fields with up to 15 other kids. “It was neat,” Fred insists. “These people would take in twelve, fifteen kids and they’d feed us –mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy, three meals a day – and we’d work in the fields.”

He says that as the smallest kid at a table of twelve with only one plate of mashed potatoes in the middle, one has either got to be the strongest kid at the table or one must use guile to get one’s share. “This is not unlike the modern-day shelters,” Maria observes. “Unless you’ve never had it, that experience stays with you for the rest of your life.”

“There’s a reason that those of us who get involved with CASA get involved,” Fred adds. “Part of it is because we want to help the kids that are here and a lot of that is because we have an idea what they’re going through. And, I’ve been there. I was not abandoned by my mother. I was always in contact with her but I didn’t live with her on a day-to-day basis. I did not think I had a bad upbringing as a child,” he continues. “The only bad thing I had was an abusive stepfather, so anywhere else I was, was just fine with me. I had a great time. I really think these kids have it a lot more serious than I did.” Maria, who was orphaned as a teenager also knows what it’s like to be thrust into the court system. She says her Midwest upbringing gave her the stamina to survive, but feels that kind of cultural foundation is missing from most of these kids’ lives.

Fred became a camp counselor at Camp Y-Noah in Akron Ohio – where the soapbox derby takes place – when he was about 14. He remembers that many kids would complain of being homesick while at camp, and says that was something he could not relate to at all. He always looked forward to being shopped around to other homes. Fred’s favorite was Aunt Mildred, but there was Aunt Tessie in Lima who took pretty good care of him, and there were others too.

The Larry Sutton Story

Until he was adopted by his stepfather, Fred’s name was Larry Sutton, his real father’s name. “My [maternal] grandfather’s name was Fred – Fritz – and everybody always called me ‘Little Freddy,’ he explains. “It was only the first day of school that anybody ever called me ‘Larry.’ I would tell the teacher, ‘No, no. Call me Freddy.’”

Nearly two decades after World War II, Fred’s mother enrolled at Akron University and earned her degree, becoming a teacher at the age of 40. Both she and her son, coincidentally, attended college at the same time. Fred attended Akron University for one semester but switched to Wooster in Ohio for a couple of years. He joined the Marines at the advice of a judge, and when he got out, found a job with Pfizer Labs who sent him to George Washington University, where he received an MBA. Afterwards, he was sent to California as a district manager for Pfizer and rose to become regional manager.

Fred never saw the ocean until he was on his way to Parris Island Marine boot camp in South Carolina in 1959, but he’d always had boats, he says, having grown up around lakes and was an avid fisherman. “After I got out of boot camp,” he relates, “they sent me up to Cherry Point [North Carolina] and I started commercial fishing.” He had a dentist friend who had a boat and the two of them fished on weekends. The dentist let Fred fish during the week when he was busy with his patients.

Fred claims he had the best job in the Marine Corps; he was a hurricane forecaster in North Carolina and later, a typhoon forecaster in Japan. He says a hurricane is the same as a typhoon, just with a different name. “In Australia, they call [hurricanes] Willy Willy,” he says, as if we understood. Fred says he and his team “flew right into the hurricanes,” because in order to really follow storms in those days, “you needed to stay on top of them all the time – this was before satellites. You just had to voodoo it in,” he laughs. Apparently, to be effective at hurricane and typhoon or Willy Willy tracking, it was best to work a 24-hour shift, so he did – and then received 72 hours off before the next shift. He admits that storms were difficult to predict in Japan “because China and Russia sent us no information. Most of your weather comes from the west, so if you didn’t know what was coming at you, you couldn’t tell what was over here. It really was voodoo.”

He was a Marine, just “in time to be trained for the Bay of Pigs invasion,” he says. “I was in the air at the Marine Corps station in Puerto Rico ready to be dropped in [to Cuba] and then Kennedy pulled us back.”

Fred The Folk Singer

In addition to his Marine Corps experience, his career with Pfizer and his life as captain of the Condor and Condor Express, Fred experienced a short musical detour.

“Not many people know this,” he says, “but when I was a kid of about seven or eight years old, I was taken into the Harvey Firestone Chorus at the Akron Ohio Episcopalian Church that he built. It was a two-hundred-and-twenty-five-voice all-male chorus. We recorded; we toured. I started as a little kid with a trained voice, so when that happens you end up having a pretty good voice even when you’re an adult.” Anyone who heard Fred sing at the most recent Red Feather Ball now understands where and how he learned mastery of stage presence and voice projection, and why he looked so darned happy and comfortable on stage.

“I used to be a folk singer,” Fred says matter of factly. “I had a group called ‘The Beachers Three’ and we used to steal songs from the Kingston Trio and the Limelighters until we started writing our own songs.” The Beachers Three were all in the Marine Corps at the time so when Fred’s two singing mates were shipped out that left him on his own. He played the guitar and sang up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina to Georgia and northern Florida. “I was there about the same time as Jimmy Buffet was and we were on the same circuit and would occasionally run into one another,” Fred recalls. “We’re not friends, but we did meet, and I’m still a fan.”

Fred was playing at The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. when a man walked in, announced that he was Connie B. Gay and wanted Fred to join an ‘Americana’ music tour of Europe he was putting together; they had jazz, blues, folk, and country/western. Fred said ‘sure,’ and ended up on stage in Amsterdam the night John Kennedy was shot. Immediately upon the announcement of the news, the show was stopped and the entire ensemble was put on a plane and flown back to Washington D.C. “As we were driving back to the airport,” Fred recalls with wonderment, “every single house had a black flag flying from the window. Every house that we passed had those black flags because John Kennedy had been shot.” He wondered whether that would happen today.

Back to California

After his folk-singing career and Marine tour of duty ended, Fred stayed with Pfizer until they asked him to return to New York City as a vice president. By then, he had his boat, and he was diving and fishing, so he declined. “I just couldn’t do it,” he says. “I just didn’t want to live in New York City, or work in New York City and live in Connecticut and commute for two hours a day. I had kids. So I quit Pfizer; they were amazed that I would leave, but I did and started Sea Landing.” During this time, Fred’s wife, Patty, died of cancer.

Hiroko had just moved to Montecito from Pasadena when she and Fred met in early 1985 on his boat during a party cruise. “She came out again, and then again,” Fred says with a smile. The two were married in September of that same year.

Hiroko is, among other things, an artist of some note and is currently busy creating an auction item to sell during this year’s CASA event. Maria believes it will prove to be “one of the monumental art projects offered for this particular event.” Hiroko has created platters upon which her stencils will be painted by the children. “I expect these will be works of art far beyond anybody’s expectations,” Maria says.

This year’s CASA budget is $864,000, but Maria projects it to be $1.3 million in 2008 because of the growth in the numbers of children coming into the system and the cost of expanded programs; a Children’s Center is being developed for Santa Barbara County Courthouse, where CASA will move. Most of the budget is funded through various gifts, including an $180,000 donation from the Women’s Fund that was just announced, and of course, through the year’s principal fundraiser, CASA at the Club.

“Our numbers are growing,” Maria admits adding, “and we can’t ignore these children. I hate to bring this up because it disheartens me, but the recent gang stabbings are children that I’ve seen before. I know that we can change the direction of lives.”

There have already been 250 reservations made for the CASA at the Club event that begins at 7 pm with cocktails and pupus on Saturday, April 21, but there is room for up to 400. If you’d like to dance, mingle, and party with a fun group of people while helping support one of Santa Barbara’s great non-profit institutions, you can call 805-879-1730. Single ticket prices are $200.

See you in the Blue Room!

Spruce Up Sunday

John Palminteri spotted Salon Mango owner Melissa Hunt adding a little Easter holiday spirit on a recent Sunday morning on Coast Village Road and he thought it was a seasonal photo we might want to use. He was right.