Richard Robitaille feels gratified when the twins race to him, waving greetings.
They're not his children; they're not even related. They are 5-year-old boys who he has nurtured for more than a year with his wife Patricia.
Although this responsibility befell the Huntington Beach residents as part of their work with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), they doled out the same care that they would have given to their own grandchildren, who are about the same age.
"Watching their personalities change, although it's nothing drastic, gives me a warm teddy bear feeling," said Richard, 73.
The siblings were 2 years old when they were taken away from their mother and placed in a group home. That's where the Robitailles first met them.
According to Patricia, the boys' emotional and behavioral issues could be linked to hardships experienced in childhood. While the goal was to keep them together, CASA was struggling to place the brothers in a foster home.
"They found a really good family that wanted to adopt the boys," said Patricia, 66. "But what wound up happening, through a lot of counseling, support and time with Rich and I, is that they are going to be permanently reunited with their mom soon."
Richard deems this a "success story" because the optimum outcome is for children to return to a regular Iife with their own parents.
Patricia described an absence of stable support in the lives of most CASA children, making the advocates' contributions even more valuable.
"They've been taken away from their parents," she said. "Foster homes can be very inconsistent, and they might move frequently from one to another, so they just don't have someone who is really on their side. It is really emotionally reassuring, helps them feel good about their lives and gets them through a lot of difficult times when they have someone to spend time with."
CASA, the nation's sole provider of court-appointed advocates for foster youths, includes an Orange County chapter that serves half of the nearly 3,000 abused and neglected children in the local foster care system.
These children make their way to CASA based on recommendations by dependency court judges, attorneys and social workers, Chief Development Officer Susan Kirkland said.
"The most severe cases are referred to CASA," she continued. "These children have no family to support and love them."
The organization, always keen to enhance the services it provides, is hosting a "Celebration of Children Black and White Ball," a fundraiser featuring a silent auction, on May. The Santa Ana-based group will celebrate 28 years of community volunteerism from 5:30 to 11 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach.
An advocate, a child who has been successfully emancipated and a corporate sponsor will be recognized at the gala, as well as this year's Children's Champions, Jon and Carol Demorest. The event, which typically attracts 600 to 800 guests, will be emceed by Emmy Award-winning news anchor Christine Devine, who spearheaded Fox's "Wednesday's Child" segment, working alongside Los Angeles' Department of Children and Family Services.
Aspiring actor and filmmaker Darnell Cates, 18, who was adopted when he was 9, will serve as the keynote speaker, while guest performer Jamal (aka Nexus) will treat the audience to hip-hop music that took root during his stint in a group home.
Robitailles will not be present at the ball, which Kirkland said is a tradition that goes back to CASA's inception in 1985.
"The 'Celebration of Children Black and White Ball' is our main fundraising event for the year," she said. "We raise nearly $1 million each year and our budget is $2.7 million, so you can see the important role it plays. It's also about 'friend raising' since it increases our visibility in the community."
She also cautions people not to get the wrong idea about CASA. Just because its name contains the word "court" doesn't mean it receives any government funding.
"We are privately funded by foundations, corporations and individuals," she said.