But this year the child advocacy group, an entirely volunteer-run program of Childhaven, reserved its Volunteer-of-the-Year award for "the shampoo lady."
Billie Curnutt, 67, accepted the award at the luncheon, a framed child's landscape painting sporting a cheery yellow sun, from Kathy Hunt, president of Childhaven's board of directors and a former child beneficiary of the nonprofit's services. Hunt cited Curnutt as someone for whom "mediocrity is not acceptable."
For four-and-a-half years, Curnutt has been working on behalf of San Juan kids, doing everything from meeting with teachers to parents to social workers and judges, to ensure that the children she advocates for have a voice, someone who can help when no one else can or will. She learned about CASA by reading about the program in the paper.
"A lot of people told me I could not do this," Curnutt said, "but despite how hard this work can be emotionally, I feel so supported by all our CASA volunteers, especially (CASA Program Director) Amy O'Neill and Jeannie Wright, two women who are incredibly strong and so calming to everyone."
Curnutt tries to embrace humor when possible, whether it is a joke and a smile from a child or the reason she got the curious nickname.
"I asked a young woman I was looking after at the county juvenile facility what she needed beyond the cup and toothbrush she had," Curnutt said. "And she asked for some shampoo, which I brought her. Later, she ran away and resurfaced at the home of her aunt. When I paid her a visit there, she introduced me to her aunt, saying, This is the shampoo lady I was telling you about.' Somehow the name stuck. You have to find a little humor when you can.
Helping abused and neglected children can leave a person run short on humor, however, as when a case ends in a way she disagrees with, but the retired business owner and mother of two grown sons finds the work rewarding.
"When I grew up, I had a strong, loving family," she said. "I did not know other children did not have that. Now that I do, I can't help but be involved."
O'Neill, who has volunteered for more than 12 years with CASA, spoke warmly to the large room, encouraging them with praise for their service along with appreciation gifts for all, identifying volunteers for each year of service, from first-year volunteers to veterans of the program.
The CASA advocates being honored ranged in age from their early 20s to 87-year-old Bessie Knedler, who was recognized for her two years of service. Knedler, began volunteering after a heart attack, a stroke, and the death of her husband left her "with too much time sitting around needing something to do."
Knedler learned about CASA at an event at San Juan College. "I like to work with people, that's why I volunteer so much," she said.
Retired schoolteacher Billie Hackney, 82, was recognized for her two-plus years of service. "I still miss the kids," she said, the former schoolteacher said. She spent 30 years in the classroom. "So I find it so rewarding to see such profound results as a CASA volunteer."
The work is challenging for three-year volunteer Lindsay Nordstrom, 27, but she said knowing kids out there need her keeps her going. "I work with cases that involve abuse neglect, and abandonment," Nordstrom said. "It is so critical to do this."
Program volunteers receive a weeklong evening training session and then are assigned neglect or abuse cases by a children's court judge.
CASA volunteers are asked to commit to a year of service. The average volunteer works between eight to 10 hours a month. A volunteer appears in court as needed for review hearings, and conducts follow-up contacts with his or her assigned child.
San Juan CASA, 807 W. Apache, can be reached at 505-592-0168 or online at childhavennm