PHOTO: Marianne Schroer, executive director of Williamson County CASA (left), stands alongside Juvenile Services Director Zannie Martin and Shikhar Shukla from Williamson Inc. Young Professionals. / Photo by John McBryde

By JOHN MCBRYDEPiled up at one end of a conference table inside the Williamson County Juvenile Services center are several wrapped Christmas gifts waiting to be delivered.

They’re of various shapes, sizes and colors. Some packages may hold basic items such as socks, underwear or toothpaste, while others contain every kind of toy and game imaginable.

And as staff and volunteers and others associated with Juvenile Services and the office of Williamson County CASA would attest, each package also represents a message of hope and caring from a community that stretches far and wide. These particular gifts are among the last this holiday season being delivered to the families and children served by Juvenile Court and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).

Known as Operation Santa, the program has just recently completed its first truly organized year of activity; and according to Zannie Martin, director of Juvenile Services, the initiative has been a success.

“At the end of the day, I think what is most important about Operation Santa is it really reflects the heart of the work that goes on down here in this building,” Martin said. “Families that we serve we care about.

“Sometimes the community might think of Juvenile Court as harsh and punitive, and that’s really not the department that we run. That’s not what our judge (Judge Sharon Guffee) reflects from the courtroom, and this project really reflects more of what the work is like. Really, we’re about helping families through a difficult time and helping kids find a sense of normalcy.

“That’s what I’m most proud about. That’s really what we do all other 11 months out of the year as well — it just doesn’t get wrapped quite like this.”

CASA, which was established in Williamson County in 1993, advocates in the best interest of abused and neglected children, primarily through the court system. The nonprofit served 571 children last year, said CASA Executive Director Marianne Schroer.

“We’re on almost every case where children have had an abuse or neglect allegation and in some cases it’s been founded,” she said. “A lot of these children are in foster homes, relative placements. I would say it’s everywhere. It crosses all socioeconomic boundaries.”

Since Christmas can be such a busy and stressful time, CASA and Juvenile Services staff began to realize about a year ago that the kids and the families they served could use a special boost during the holidays. They began to hear last year from businesses and organizations that wanted to help these families during the holidays, but nothing could get truly organized for a full-scale initiative to get underway.

But the seed was planted, and this year Operation Santa has served approximately 23 families and 60 children with monetary and gift donations coming from all over the county. Several agencies have been involved, and the Franklin Noon Rotary Club has been a major contributor. Private attorneys have stepped up, as well as businesses and just individuals wanting to help.

A leadership team from Williamson Inc. Young Professionals became involved with Operation Santa as a community project, and one of its members called it an “eye-opening” experience.

“One of the biggest things from this is that we never realized there was this amount of need in Williamson County, and you never really realize it until you get involved in a community effort like this,” said Shikhar Shukla, business development manager for Skanska USA Building Inc. “So yes, this was eye-opening in that sense. But also we realized needs don’t go away come Jan. 1. I think we need to keep that in mind as a community, so we’ll continue to help out wherever we can and continue to get plugged in as much as we can going forward.”

Also helping from the Young Professionals team were DeAnna Croom of Pinnacle Financial Partners, Katherine Hellard from Williamson Medical Center and Lindsay Curtis from Taziki’s Café.

“Working on this community service project with all of the individuals willing to volunteer their personal time away from their own families and obligations has been both humbling and fulfilling at the same time,” Croom said. “We have all become friends and close associates who have one common goal — provide Christmas for children who would go without otherwise. It has been a true community effort to pull this off.”

While some of the children understandably noted on their wish list the latest toys or games, many had requests for more simple gifts such as clothing or personal care items.

One teen asked for a tie and a white shirt so he could go to church. Another requested a guitar. “He lives with a relative who plays the guitar and he wanted to learn,” Schroer said. “Ron Shuff stepped up to the plate, and Shuff’s Music donated that guitar for that little boy.”

No matter the wants or needs from the kids and families, Martin said CASA and Juvenile Services staff, volunteers and associates did whatever they could to accommodate.

“It’s one time out of the normal work that we do here where there’s no paperwork, no qualifying, no filling out a form, nothing other than a chance for us to express to our families that we care for them,” she said. “In court, there’s a lot of structure and tasks and requirements and codes and everything else. But for this project, it’s just a simple way for us to express our care and concern for those we’re serving.”