The Children's After School Achievement (CASA) program's annual end-of-year "Family Celebration" will mark the beginning of a year-long commemoration of CASA's 15th birthday.

The Children's After School Achievement (CASA) program's annual end-of-year "Family Celebration" will mark the beginning of a year-long commemoration of CASA's 15th birthday.

The CASA program, a community organization housed at Hope College, works with at-risk first through fifth grade students, focusing on academic and social development. The program began in 1987.

The annual "Family Celebration" recognizes the children's hard work as participants in CASA, and includes their family members and others involved in the program. This year's activities will include face painting, gifts of books to the children, door prize drawings and entertainment by magician Shawn Jacob. The event's festive theme made it the right way to begin commemorating CASA's anniversary, according to Fonda Green, CASA's executive director.

"Our Family Celebration celebrates the year's successes," said Green, who joined the program in 1998. "This year's celebration seemed like a good time to begin our recognition of the successes of the last 15 years, and our work in the community."

Rick Muniz, principal of Holland's Longfellow Elementary, one the schools that has children participating in CASA, appreciates what CASA represents as a sign of the community's commitment to children's lives.

"We've always viewed the responsibility to educate and nurture children as one that we share with parents of the kids and the community," he said. "It's really fulfilling a highly needed role in that respect."

Over the course of the past decade-and-a-half, he noted, the CASA program itself has become a trusted and valued resource.

"There's no hesitation on the part of our staff in viewing CASA as a very necessary help for our children," he said. "After 15 years, there's such a degree of trust that's been built up between the school and CASA that the program becomes a part of what the school is."

Established by Marge Rivera Bermann, CASA was originally administered by Latin Americans United for Progress (LAUP) and housed at First United Methodist Church. The program moved to Graves Hall at Hope College in 1989.

CASA runs year-round, providing wellness education, cultural awareness, and academic enrichment to the participating students. The program is intended to improve their academic performance and help them develop healthy, productive lifestyles. CASA's students meet after school twice per week for two hours per session throughout the school year, and in the mornings during the six-week summer session.

Approximately 100 students participate during both the school-year and the summer sessions. With additional support, Green noted, the totals could be even higher.

"We have more people on the waiting list than we are currently able to serve," she said.

The academic-year program serves Holland-area students, and the summer program serves Holland and West Ottawa as well. CASA students attend from Black River, Glerum, Great Lakes, Holland Heights, Jefferson, Lakeview, Longfellow, Maplewood, North Holland, Pine Creek, Vanderbilt Academy, Van Raalte, Washington, Waukazoo and Woodside Elementary.

CASA receives its operating support through grants from the City of Holland, Greater Ottawa County United Way and Volunteer Center, and several civic organizations, corporations and private individuals. Hope provides in-kind assistance that includes office and classroom space as well as general program oversight.

In addition, about 100 volunteers serve as tutors each year, including dozens of Hope students as well as members of the community. The relationships established through such mentoring, Muniz feels, play no less critical a role in the children's lives than the tutoring itself, and can have benefits far beyond their elementary years.

"They beam when they know they've got a special relationship with the tutor or the mentor that they're going to see," Muniz said. "That significant relationship with a caring adult in their lives can help develop skills that make them resilient to whatever difficulties that will come to them in the future."

The CASA Family Celebration will take place on Thursday, April 25, with other birthday festivities set throughout the remainder of the year.