FARMINGTON — Call it a meal of hope.

Diners at Chili's on East Main Street had the opportunity Tuesday to eat and help a good cause, all at once.

The restaurant teamed with San Juan CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates.

Its volunteers are appointed by judges to work alongside attorneys and social workers to help represent abused and neglected children in court.

"Every year we look for new people for community support, and Chili's had provided food at our volunteer luncheon in November," said Amy O'Neill, CASA director. "They expressed interest in helping us again with a giveback night, so we were really happy to have their generous help."

The all-day event raised money to send CASA volunteers to a training conference in Albuquerque next month.

Twelve of them will attend the 20th Annual Children's Law Institute.

It will feature 36 workshops and national speakers, including a keynote presentation by Jonathan Kozol, author of 13 books on education inequality and child advocacy.

O'Neill emphasized the need for San Juan court advocates to meet and hear from others working on behalf of children.

"I attended the institute last year and was so impressed," two-year CASA volunteer Brenda Gable said. "It was an invaluable experience. To be able to interact and learn from attorneys, judges, educators, social workers gave the work we do locally some perspective that really helps."

Gable, 64, who did missionary work for 30 years, said court volunteers usually take only two active cases at a time.


"The magistrate judges are very appreciative of our help, especially since we spend so much time building the trust of each child, through many, many home visits and observations," she said.

Chris Perica, a retired designer who has been with CASA for two years, will be attending the conference for the first time.

"I really haven't been able, since my original training, to spend much time with other volunteers and learn what and how they are doing," she said. "This conference represents the opportunity to share stories and ideas."

Perica, 61, began volunteering after learning about CASA through a lawyer friend who donated her services to the organization.

"Until I got involved, I didn't see a face on the issue, but every child I have worked with has such potential to have a happy and healthy life. It keeps me focused," Perica said.

For more information about San Juan CASA, call (505) 592-0168 or online at