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May 21, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, May 21, 2004

Not just for the birds Not just for the birds (May 21, 2004)

Birdhouse Auction supports at-risk children and youth

by Kate Lilienthal

W hat do kids in need and birds have in common?

Both need comfortable, secure homes. That's how Child Advocates came up with the idea to auction off hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind birdhouses to raise money for the non-profit organization that trains volunteers to support children placed in the foster care system in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

This Saturday, May 22, Child Advocates is hosting its second annual Birdhouse Bash, a fundraiser in which more than 80 birdhouses will be auctioned off to the highest bidders.

"Our work is a way to advocate for children getting into safe, healthy homes. The birdhouses represent that idea," said Toni Cupal, vice president of the Board of Directors and an advocate herself.

Child Advocates trains Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers to ensure that the long-term welfare of abused and neglected children is represented as they journey through the child-welfare system.

"Of the kids who emancipate out of the child-welfare system at age 18, statistics reveal that 65 percent will be homeless, in jail or dead within a year. As advocates, we try to intervene and be a part of the process of stabilizing young lives as early as possible," said Gisela Bushey, Child Advocates executive director. "Research suggests that children with advocates spend less time in court and have better chances of finding permanent homes."

In organizing the upcoming party, Cupal reached out to potential birdhouse builders around the Bay, from carpenters to architects, art students, amateurs and children. One contributor is general contractor, Bob Cooper, or "Bob the Builder" of Portola Custom Builders in Menlo Park and San Mateo.

Last spring, Cooper built the birdhouse that received the highest bid, $1,700, and won an award for wackiest house.

"Building the birdhouses is addictive. We find ourselves adding on until the houses get so heavy we can't lift them," he said. This year, Cooper and business partner David Lofgren have built a total of six birdhouses.

Putting the finishing touches on a birdhouse that looks like a barn big enough to hold a cow let alone several hundred birds, Cooper exclaimed, "Oh, I forgot the weather vane!"

Cooper didn't just wing his birdhouse venture. He diligently referred to the Audubon Society for design specifications related to dimensions, habitation, drainage, entrance holes, accessibility and limited predator access.

"Nevertheless, the birdhouses come in all shapes and sizes. At last year's auction, a Stanford professor of design declared, 'these aren't birdhouses; they're lawn sculptures!'" said Cupal.

At Foothill College, students in an art course on 3-Dimensional design undertook the birdhouses as a class project. The students worked on the houses in groups of three over a two-week period, critiquing each other's finished projects.

"We began the project with a conversation about the houses within the context of the event and Child Advocates' work. It was the most important part of the design process and made the work much more meaningful," said Hilary Ciment, course instructor.

The finished projects bear out the discussion. One birdhouse, called Floating City, is made of papier-mâché. The bottom half is roots while the top is a city. It is a metaphor for children being uprooted from one family to another.

Child Advocates is part of a national organization called Court Appointed Special Advocate Volunteers (CASA). The organization began in 1976 when Superior Court Judge David Soukoup of Seattle, Wash., wanted to ensure that courts had sufficient information to make the right decisions in cases involving abused and neglected children. To help keep the most needy kids from falling through the cracks, he came up with the idea to recruit and train community volunteers to step into courtrooms on behalf of children.

Today there are more than 400 CASA programs around the country. The branch serving San Mateo and Santa Clara counties is the biggest, handling about 1,000 children per year.

Child Advocates serves children from birth to age 18. The cases they handle are often the most difficult cases in the foster-care system, and because of their caseloads, social workers and attorneys often have little time to spend with each case. Advocates help fill the void with regular visits, working with the parties involved, and educating families about available services. They accompany children to court and present regular reports to the court when appropriate, spending an average of 144 hours per year with a child.

"Advocates are change agents in the children's lives. Sometimes the advocate is the only consistent adult a child knows," Bushey said.

The Birdhouse Bash is Child Advocates' second largest fundraiser for the year. "We wanted to get away from the typical black-tie function," said Cupal. "This will be a wonderful, casual garden party for the whole family."

In addition to the silent auction, the event will include a live auction, awards for best houses in a handful of categories, and a short talk on the impact of Child Advocates by a prominent Santa Clara County judge. Kids can have fun making bird nests with real materials and decorating birdhouses to take home.

Cupal has advocated for five children over five years. She is still in touch with her early cases. "What you don't realize when you begin as an advocate is that when the children climb into your heart, they never climb out," she said.
What: Birdhouse Bash Where: 210 Alta Vista Ave., Los Altos When: Saturday, May 22, 2:30 to 5 p.m. Tickets: $60; $20 for children 3-14; free for children under 3 Info: Call (408) 573-5674 or visit

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