George Flores credits much of his success to lessons taught to him by his parents and mentors while he was growing up in Northern New Mexico.
His father, a Mexican immigrant, didn’t have a formal education but taught him the importance of hard work. His mother, a native of Costilla, N.M., instilled in him the idea that education was the key to a prosperous life. His family owned a small New Mexican restaurant in Taos, said Flores, who has an older brother and an older sister.
With the strong work ethic he learned from his father and with the encouragement he received from his mother, Flores dedicated himself to his studies, earned a college degree and landed a plum job as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Department of State.
Now 76, Flores knows not all children in Northern New Mexican are as fortunate. Many are victims of abuse and neglect, or caught up in the court system for various reasons. For the last several years, Flores has been trying to help some of them get on track for a successful life.
Since 2007, Flores has been a volunteer with the national nonprofit Court Appointed Special Advocates — better known as CASA — which advocates for individual children in the court system and in the community.
“Children are the most vulnerable,” Flores said, “and there’s an internal level of satisfaction in doing the smallest things that can make that child’s life a little better.
“You’re not going to change the situation all by yourself,” he added, “but you can be a big influence.”
The citizen volunteers are appointed by the First District Court, which includes the counties of Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos. The advocates make recommendations about the child’s needs to the court. For example, the advocate might tell the judge whether he or she believes the child is safe at home with the parents or if the child would be better off at a relative’s house.
Since becoming a volunteer, Flores has worked with children who have gone on to have successful lives. But he’s also seen others remain trapped in negative environments, he said. Still, he continues to help, hoping that some little spark of positive influence will help those children turn their lives around for the better.
“Hopefully something has happened in that year or the 18 months [you’re assigned] to get the kid into a nice foster home or back into their extended family and they’re doing OK,” Flores said.
A case that has been stuck in his mind for all the years he has volunteered, he said, involved a 12-year-old girl who had been raised in various foster homes.
“One day I see this girl with a backpack, and I asked what she was doing with the backpack,” he recalled. “She had all her belongings that she valued in that backpack because she did not expect to go to the same foster home that night and she was so used to being transferred from foster home to foster home. It was so tragic. … She just didn’t expect any stability in her life.”
He kept in touch with her until she graduated from high school and then lost contact with her. He said he was glad that she at least got her high school diploma.
Some of the children, through no fault of their own, remain locked in the court system because their parents can’t seem to get out of trouble, he said. In other cases, children become independent, and with or without help get back on track to a more stable life.
“You hear from some of the volunteers, ‘They graduated high school. I never thought they would graduate from high school. And, ‘One went to college,’ ” Flores said as he recalled stories told about children the organization has helped.
“There are success stories, but there’s also lots of failures, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “Sometimes the courts return the kids to their families and maybe within another year, they’re back in the system.”
He acknowledges the “job can get to you.” Still, he remains optimistic and hopes that his efforts make a positive impact. In the long run, he said, the children at least know that there’s someone who has supported them.
“You just hope that you made enough of an impact,” he said. “Maybe the resources that you put into the child can get him [or her] into a more stable life.”
The advocates on average work about 15 to 20 hours a month on a case, and some of the duties include appearing at court hearings, or visiting the children at their homes or schools. The organization also helps buy some things for the child, such as school supplies or shoes, Flores said. During the court process, the volunteer’s goal is to look out for the child’s well-being.
Flores graduated from The University of New Mexico and began working at a Bank of America branch in Albuquerque. There, he met another mentor who saw that Flores, now 76, had potential to further his career in financing. The mentor helped him to get his employer to pay for his education at the San Francisco State University in California, where he earned his Master of Business Administration.
After getting his MBA, Flores joined the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service officer and served for 26 years. While assigned to Afghanistan in 1973, he met his wife, who was also a Foreign Service officer. The couple later got married in Ghana in 1975.
Flores said he realizes that he has been fortunate to have had a good education and a good job. In his interaction with the children he advocates for, he said he tries to deliver the message that a good education can catapult them into brighter and more positive futures.
But he also knows there is only so much the organization can do without more volunteers.
“Honestly, we need 1,000 volunteers,” he said. “There’s just so much need out there.”
Contact Uriel Garcia at 986-3062 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help
• For information on how to be a volunteer for CASA, visit www.casafirst.org/.