The sunlight strikes diagonals through the skylight into the little lobby at 300 Cathedral St., catching the reddish tones in Sharon Duncan-Jones' hair.
Some typical lobby furniture and a large potted plant fill the alcove. A 4-foot wide artwork featuring two close-ups of children's faces dominates one wall.
Art that speaks of children seems entirely appropriate.
In March, Ms. Duncan-Jones, a few months past her 30th birthday, became director of the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Baltimore. The CASA (pronounced KAH-sa) program, employing community volunteers in mostly one-on-one situations, works on referrals through the court system for the interests of abused and neglected children.
Without children of her own, she is a woman whose whole life is children. She has roots and a background that speak to the joy of familial bonds, and her work centers on dysfunctional families.
"My professional goal had been to go into law, to be an attorney," she says. "In grad school [for a master's degree in legal studies], I took a battery of state employment tests. I scored a 99 on the social services part."
Goodbye, law career.
Hello, new life as a child advocate.
As she talks in the lobby outside the fifth floor CASA offices, her smile seems easy and natural, her hands expressive, her eyes bright. She comes across as sincere but understated, as dedicated without wearing a capital D on her sleeve.
"The volunteers are at the heart of CASA," she says.
Volunteers like Paul Navarro, at 28, who is one of the youngest, or Roland Hertz, at 75, the oldest, or Jan Goslee, who was the advocate for two sisters through two years, or Augustus Chase, who worked with four brothers at once.
Founded in 1977 by a Seattle judge, CASA now exists in all 50 states with 531 programs. CASA Baltimore, established in 1987 by Baltimore City Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, is one of six programs in Maryland. The others are in Howard, Talbot, Prince George's, Montgomery and Washington counties, Ms. Duncan-Jones says.
"A lot of people think we're a Mexican restaurant," she says. "What we do is recruit, train and supervise community volunteers to act as advocates for children. Since the first volunteer pool started in 1988, we've trained 300 volunteers who have worked with 500 children."
Ms. Duncan-Jones moves from spot to spot within the alcove as a photographer takes pictures. She discusses the history of CASA, the goals of CASA, the importance of community and family, and the necessity of being pro-active in the cause of children instead of looking for someone to blame. The ideas spew forth in bursts, delivered in such a disarmingly objective way they become conversational, not argumentative or preachy.
Glimmers of the person
In the ideas, she allows glimmers of Sharon Duncan-Jones the person, who started as a human services worker in the Baltimore Department of Social Services, moved to the state's attorney's office and then to CASA, always with the emphasis of working with and for children.
"I fell in love with the work from the start," she says. And, she began developing her philosophy on the needs of "the child."
Since then, she has seen the "overdose of reality" too many children face in Baltimore today. Once, she heard it in the words of a 5-year-old when he was asked a standard question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
She says the boy thought about it and said, " 'If I grow up . . .' as if there was some doubt planted there."
"When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be this, I wanted to be that when I was grown," Ms. Duncan-Jones says. "That bothers me that a child can say, 'If I grow up . . . If I grow up, I want to be . . .' "
Ms. Duncan-Jones grew up the daughter of Doris McQuaige Duncan, a special education teacher in city schools, and James Andrew Duncan, a cook. She had an older brother and sister. Her father died when she was 13.
Her mother remembers her at 5 as a cheerful and optimistic little girl telling people to "have a nice day."
"I always kept the children busy," says Mrs. Duncan. "Sharon was involved in activities with the church and school and with the youth groups in my sorority, Zeta Phi Beta."
Barry Jones, Ms. Duncan-Jones' husband of "going on three years" this October, says his wife's upbringing is the key to what she is today.
"Sharon grew up in a very loving family," Mr. Jones says. "Her mother was her inspiration."
Ms. Duncan-Jones' strong family background is the source of her empathy for children.
"We had parks where we could go and have picnics and a playground," she says. "Now children have to walk over vagrants or dodge needles and run home when they hear the sounds of gunfire."
Her mother says those family ties kept her daughter at home when she could have had a four-year scholarship to Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"We begged her to go," says Mrs. Duncan. "She went to Morgan State instead."
Relishing the challenge