JOPLIN, Mo. — A local woman once found a soft spot in her heart as a volunteer advocate for children in Newton County’s foster care system.

Since then, she’s become the executive director of Jasper County’s branch of the organization. Despite the title, you might be surprised to learn she’s still a volunteer.

“I became an advocate in Newton County, probably seven years ago,” said Debi Koelkebeck, Jasper County CASA Executive Director.

That’s when a new life purpose began for Debi Koelkebeck.

The court-appointed special advocate organization, also known as CASA, helps children maneuver through the foster care system.

“I just never actually realized there would be children that didn’t have that family structure, somebody that was watching over them, making sure they were safe, making sure they had what they needed,” said Koelkebeck.

The realization tugged at her heartstrings, especially when she realized foster care children in our local county with the highest population didn’t have advocates.

“There wasn’t a Jasper County program and this is my home, where I’ve always lived. And I just felt really bad that kids here didn’t have a voice, didn’t have a consistent adult,” Koelkebeck.

Debi reached out to anyone and everyone she knew to launch ‘Jasper County CASA’ in 2018.

“It was a lot of paperwork and a lot of conversations. We met with the judges in Jasper County and the court and they gave us their blessing to go forward. We have a community steering committee that we put together to see if it was needed,” said Koelkebeck.

“She’s very strong and wise. She has a lot of professional skills and connections. And, there are many people like that, but she is unique in that she chose to step up and do something like volunteer to be an executive director of a start-up nonprofit because our area needed it,” said Chelsi Scott, Jasper County CASA Program Director.

No, you didn’t mishear that.

Debi’s work as the executive director for Jasper County is a total, unpaid volunteer position.

“Jasper County CASA had nothing when we started. It was a dream in a one-room office with just me downtown. So, to be able to volunteer, we could make it happen. If we had to pay a salary from the beginning, it wouldn’t have happened. And, now, I’m just in a great spot where I can continue to do that, and it feels like my ‘pay it forward,” said Koelkebeck.

But, it’s more than that. those who know her well have taken notice.

“She has worked tirelessly, and in many different capacities. She works for individual kids, getting to know them, making sure their needs are met, but she also has a whole facility where we can have capacity and stability as we continue to grow,” said Chelsi Scott, Jasper County CASA Program Director.

That one-room office five years ago has grown into a newly built facility…

Five advocates in training serving zero children back in 2018 have turned into around a hundred volunteers and seven staff members, serving about 200 children.

“I am so lucky. I get a front-row seat every day to see an impact that they’ve had on the children’s lives, so to see those stories, to see it now as a real thing when it was just a dream, it is just incredible,” said Koelkebeck.

Because if you ask Debi, it’s not about her, it’s about the connection between children and their court-appointed advocate.

“As a volunteer, you will get more from these kids than you give. You will fall in love. You will experience just a feeling for children and being able to support them like no other,” said Koelkebeck.

“Debi’s changed my life personally. She’s helped me grow, and become more confident. She’s someone I would want young women to look up to and ask questions, and get to know and see how she reacts and handles things. I think she’s a fantastic role model,” said Scott.