Wednesday, Apr 14, 2021
Bill Collins was the beginning of CASA of Lewis & Clark and Broadwater Counties and has dedicated over fifty years of his life to helping families and children live happier, more connected lives.
“CASA has truly been the highlight of my professional career. People give so much of themselves for free. It is so important to the individuals who come into your life because of what we do,” -- Bill Collins
April being “Child Abuse Prevention Month" we wanted to highlight this amazing man and share his journey in creating the Helena CASA as we know it today.
Bill grew up in Hamilton and graduated from Carroll in 1968. He began work researching burnout in social work before getting a master's from the University of Utah and returning to Montana. Bill worked across the state as a supervisor, district supervisor, assistant supervisor, and regional administrator for Child Protective Services.
“It was a rat race at times,” he said. “I learned a lot of delicate balances have to be struck to get the best out of people … I was walking a tightrope between providing what I saw as ethical service and being on budget.”
In 1994, Bill hung up his CPS cape for a fly rod and became a seasonal fishing guide. He toured people up and down the Smith River mostly, working for other children's programs during the off-season.
“I wanted something different,” he said. When I asked if there were any similarities between social work and guiding fishing tours he laughed, “You wouldn’t believe the amount of crossover.” Bill said it was a lot of babysitting which required good communication and conflict resolution.
Before the call from the Montana Supreme Court asking him to spearhead the project, Bill had barely heard of CASA. Equipped with only a $5,500 startup grant, no office, and no staff, Bill had his work cut out for him.
“There were a lot of good people that made it possible,” he said. Assistance from National CASA as well as the CASA program in Bozeman, and of course the board of directors were all essential assets in those first years of Helena CASA. Not to mention, the unofficial employee: Bill’s granddaughter, Alexis (Lexi) Olson, who started her work at CASA at age seven. “By nine years old, she knew more about CASA than I did,” Bill chuckled, remembering her running through the office, organizing papers, and correcting him when he did something wrong.
By November, 1998, they had six volunteers and started taking their first cases. By that point, CASA had run out of money and Bill was working for free, a volunteer in his own right. “I had to resort to a life of crime,” he admitted to stealing pens and paper whenever he visited the bank or friend’s offices.
Despite challenges and “many mistakes,” according to Bill, he successfully ran Helena CASA for fourteen years as director and a member of the board. They were serving 115 children at that point. He continued on the Board of Directors until 2016 and now continues working as a CASA advocate, working hands-on with the children and families who need a voice.
“I always did prefer hands-on work with family and kids. CASA is another way I can continue doing what I love,” he says after fifty years of dedication to the families of Montana.
Today, Bill continues to volunteer as a CASA advocate while still enjoying Montana's great outdoors. A big part of his life is hiking, fishing, and camping with grandkids and more recently he has taken up writing.
“People need to know how much CASA is needed and how much CASA needs people to come through the door and give it a shot,” he says.
CASA runs on volunteers who step up to become special advocates for children in court. If there was one piece of advice Bill could give it would be to always show up and be respectful.
“These families and kids just don’t have that. Didn’t have constants and I really felt that was the most fundamental thing we could do… That they could count on us.”
Bill Collins has dedicated over fifty years of his life to helping families and children live happier, more connected lives. He says that he continues to volunteer because of the people he encounters along the way. Stories of lost sisters reuniting, and visiting kids who pile onto his lap are memories that make the work worth it.
“Being a part of something that is so very human, you touch people on a different level. You help people understand that things get pretty tough but there’s always something to rely on and that’s what I try to be.” -- Bill Collins