SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — "It feels like we've known Barbara forever. She's just been part of our lives. Everyone knows Barbara," said Nataly Reyes.
Nataly and her sister, Jacky Alvarado, grew up in San Diego County’s Foster Care System. They had each other to lean on, but no consistent parent figure, until they met Barbara Winicki.
"We're always super grateful for Barbara. She's part of our family," said Nataly.
Barbara was their CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate; a volunteer who helps foster youth navigate through the complicated court system.
Barbara was the one constant in their lives through the challenging high school years. She encouraged both sisters to go to college, and they became the first generation in their family to do so.
Nataly said Barbara became that person she would call to share good news, bad news, and everything in between. They would discuss school, exams, and even little things that at the time, seemed like big things.
"When I was going through a breakup in college and I felt like my world was ending, she was the first person I called and she gave me some advice and motivated me to keep going," Nataly recalled.
When Nataly chose to pursue a career in education after graduating from UC Davis, Barbara continued to offer support.
"She was also a teacher and a principal, so she was also able to give me some of that advice," said Nataly.
Barbara never imagined she would have such a big impact on Nataly's life.
"I was actually kind of shocked when she told me that she decided on teaching. She said she wanted to follow in my footsteps, so I was beyond honored," Barbara said.
Nataly recently earned her master's degree and just started a new job as a teacher in an urban school in Los Angeles. She works with bilingual students, many of whom have just moved from Central America, and is paying it forward.
"In the back of my head, I always knew I want to help children. I want to help, just how I was supported by Barbara and by other people, I also wanted to offer to give back to the community," said Nataly.
Nataly's story is just one example of Barbara’s immeasurable impact. She has made a difference in countless other lives, by serving as a CASA to a total of 12 foster children over the past 11 years.
This is why Barbara Winicki has been named CASA of the Year by Voices for Children, the nonprofit organization that runs the volunteer program.
"I was in shock", said Barbara, as she described how she felt when she learned of the news, adding, "I'm not good at accepting those compliments. It's really hard for me to hear and to be the center of attention because I don't feel like I'm doing anything special."
Nataly said both she and her sister Jacky believe the honor is long overdue.
"We would give her the prize every year if we could if we were in charge," she said, adding "Just because of her support, that she helped us. Even now, I'm 27 and she's still a big part of my life."
Barbara said the 12 foster children she's gotten to know through the years have done far more for her than she has done for them.
"I've seen and I felt the resiliency of Nataly and Jacky during tough times growing up, not having any that support in their life," Barbara reflected. "And it's taught me to be stronger and more resilient."
Kelly Grant, Program Manager with Voices for Children, said Barbara is a true inspiration, who has gone above and beyond time and time again.
"Barbara is just one of the most dedicated and committed people and CASAs that I know. It is so wonderful, humbling and incredible to be honoring Barbara," she said.
Barbara she couldn't have done any of it without the support of her husband Morris.
"I see from behind the scenes what she does, and how it's so heartfelt when she does this. She's doing it from her heart, and it's really a joy and a great satisfaction to see how she contributes to these kids that would otherwise be adrift," said Morris about his wife.
"Every foster youth should have a CASA -- someone that supports them like Barbara did to us," said Nataly.
Her sister Jacky couldn't join us for the interview, as she was attending a class at Humboldt State University.
On Saturday, September 25th, Barbara will be honored as CASA of the Year at Voices for Children's Starry Starry Night fundraising event marking their 40th year, which I have the honor of emceeing.
To learn more about becoming a CASA with Voices for Children, click here. If you’re interested in becoming a foster or adoptive resource family with the County of San Diego, call 1-877-792-KIDS or click here.