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story.lead_photo.caption Lauren Geier of Conway is the new director of the Arkansas State CASA Association in Little Rock, overseeing 23 Court Appointed Special Advocate organizations. Geier said she is “passionate about improving foster care for kids.” - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Lauren Geier of Conway is known for making people laugh, often posting on Facebook about the antics of her three kids or the family’s dogs, Tina Turner and Mojo.

But she’s serious about a couple of things — her desire to help foster children and her commitment to continue her late father’s legacy.

“I’m passionate about improving foster care for kids and advocating for trauma-informed systems,” Geier said.

Geier (pronounced Guy-er) became the new director of the Arkansas State CASA Association on Aug. 15. She oversees the 23 independent Court Appointed Special Advocate organizations in Arkansas.

Her father, Allen Weatherly, died three years ago on Nov. 1. He was the longtime executive director of the Arkansas Educational Television Network in Conway.

“He was my role model,” she said. “His career was with public television, and the last 30 years was with AETN as executive director. He also served on the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) national board, so when I say that legacy, it’s that I grew up having a dad who, his work was in his passion field, and he did it. He pushed through and made sure everything was ingrained in what he did. He believed in public television.”

Geier, whose background is in counseling, works within the administrative office of the courts’ juvenile division in Little Rock. She provides technical assistance to CASA organizations and is a liaison to the Arkansas Legislature and the national CASA organization.

“I do some speaking about CASA at the state level about what we do. I serve on some committees and task forces, … and right now, since the Legislature is not in session, I haven’t even done those yet.

“The Legislature has appropriation money that it gives to CASA annually, so each of those 23 agencies is funded at different levels, depending on how many children they serve,” she said.

“If somebody calls and they’re interested in more information about CASA, I can direct them to their local program. … If they have a need for training or questions about board structure or additional grants, … that is information I can help get for them,” she said. “I also do statewide training [for CASA advocates and directors].”

She left a job at Counseling Associates in Conway to take the position because of the opportunity to impact public policy, as her father did in his career, she said.

Her family — her dad; her mom, Peggy; and her brother, David — moved to Conway from Springfield, Missouri, when Geier was in the 10th grade for her father to take the AETN job.

“I was drawn to some sort of helping profession; I just didn’t know what that looked like,” she said.

She attended the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and majored in psychology and worked for the campus housing department. When she worked on her master’s degree in counseling, she was offered a graduate assistantship, “which paid for my degree,” she said.

Geier was a resident assistant and hall director, first at what was then an all-girls freshman dorm, Carmichael Hall.

“I loved it. I have told people, No. 1, that I went to the hometown university, but I lived on campus and pretended I had gone away from home and completely threw myself into being a Bear,” she said.

“Working for housing was probably the best training ground. You deal with every crisis and every personality,” she said. “I was a hall director during 9/11. We all were shocked in that moment, watching the news and trying to figure out what that meant for us. I had the responsibility of 250 18-year-old girls who were scared and angry and didn’t know how to process [9/11]. There were lots of late-night sessions in the lobby trying to figure it out,” she said.

The 9/11 attacks affected her life personally, too.

“I was in a serious relationship with my now husband (Trey), and he was in ROTC and planned a career in the military, and just like that, we knew our lives had changed,” she said.

She graduated with a master’s degree in counseling at the same time Trey graduated and was commissioned as an officer in the Army. The couple moved to Savannah, Georgia, to Hunter Army Airfield.

She said her first “significant” professional job was working as a therapist for 20 of the 40 boys living at the Bethesda Home for Boys, now Bethesda Academy. It was a group home for males in foster care.

“That was my first exposure to working with children in foster care, children who had experienced trauma, and just kind of understanding our national foster-care system. Bethesda, at the time, was typically the fourth or fifth placement for these boys.

“Seeing how the system can negatively impact kids in foster care was a huge eye-opening experience for me,” she said.

“That was 13 years ago, and a lot of changes have been made since then. Georgia was in the process of moving away from group homes; Arkansas is in that process right now. Bethesda doesn’t exist in that model anymore,” Geier said.

She had several other jobs, and her family lived in Memphis for a while. They moved back to Arkansas 10 years ago.

She took a job with Counseling Associates, initially as a school-based therapist, then became a therapist for Haven in Conway, a residential home for girls who have been abused and are in the foster-care system.

Geier moved into an administrative role with Counseling Associates as the clinical supervisor for Haven.

“I loved it; my heart is working with kids in foster care and with trauma, so it was great,” she said.

Geier called Haven Director of Development Marti Jones “amazing and dynamic.”

Jones said Geier was an asset to Haven as a therapist and clinical supervisor.

“She always had a great rapport with our kids and fought for them in treatment,” Jones said. “Lauren has a great mix of a witty sense of humor and heart that translated with both our residents and her co-workers. Foster care is a tough and serious field to work in, so a co-worker who always made you laugh is missed. Haven’s loss is most definitely CASA’s gain.”

Geier said that as her career has progressed, she has felt a desire to have more of an influence on policy.

“I’ve felt a pull toward more of a focus toward advocacy and at the policy level and away from direct practice. I think some of that is that as time goes by, you see systems change and you want to have an influence,” she said.

Geier said that since she started her job in August, she’s traveled all over Arkansas meeting CASA directors and learning about the work being done on behalf of children in foster care.

Although she is still getting settled into her new role, she has definite goals, Geier said.

“My first goal is to relationship-build and provide some increased connectivity to those 23 agencies. Twenty-three different voices tend to drown each other out, so as we are more connected and work together with the same voice, we have a lot more power. [Another goal is] improving our message and recruiting more volunteers statewide to be CASA advocates,” she said.

“Our new message with national CASA is ‘CASA works to change a child’s story.’ There are over 4,000 kids in Arkansas in foster care. Our ultimate goal is to have a CASA advocate assigned to each child in foster care,” she said. “As a state, we have some goals; we want to do a better job recruiting advocates of color, [for example].

“Sometimes it’s easy to get disheartened by the numbers, but there are so many great people walking alongside children and their families who have experienced abuse and neglect. It’s amazing how many people volunteer their time for children they don’t even know initially.”

Geier said she was never a CASA advocate.

“I was coming from a parallel system. I worked alongside CASA as a therapist,” she said.

“Sometimes our systems become silos, and it is difficult to work toward holistic healing from trauma,” she said. “Research tells us that as social beings, humans crave healthy relationships. Stable, healthy, consistent relationships are both barriers to trauma and the balm through trauma treatment.”

Geier said Arkansas CASA “has a unique position to bridge all of the silos surrounding children in foster care.”

She said her intention is to be a leader like her father was and have his thirst for knowledge.

“My dad was just a lifelong learner, and I think anybody who ever met him knew that. He was like a walking Trivial Pursuit game. He would say he was a disciple of knowledge,” she said, laughing. “I never know everything, and there are more resources and experts and voices to hear from all the time.”

Geier said her goal includes exhibiting “gentle leadership,” like her father did.

“I can’t think of a better servant leader to walk alongside. There’s a quote that you want to build a team so strong that no one can point out the leader, and I think that’s who my dad was as a leader in our family and in our friends’ groups and within the different organizations he worked in.”

Geier emphasized that everyday people are the basis for CASA’s work.

“The thing I keep going back to is that CASA depends on volunteers, that a lot of people think in order to work with a kid in foster care or to make a difference, they have to have a special degree or a special background, but CASA just weaves together people from all backgrounds, all walks of life, whose passion is children.”

She said advocates are needed “to be a consistent adult in the lives of foster children and change their story to a story of hope and resilience and a good outcome.”

And she wants those children to be able to laugh.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-5671 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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