Program Administrator/Public Information Officer and Supervisor for the CASA Unit for Pinal County Juvenile Court
Interview by Bea Lueck
A dynamic child advocate, Donna McBride shares with Golden Corridor LIVING how she became an integral part of life in Casa Grande and Pinal County. Beginning life in West Virginia, we follow Donna through the life changes that shaped her careers in nonprofit work and that eventually led to her current career as the Program Administrator/Public Information Officer and Supervisor for the CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) Unit for Pinal County Juvenile Court. Donna also became a tireless community advocate, serving the Casa Grande Alliance, Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, BlackBox Foundation, Mayor’s Reading Program, Pinal County Town Hall Vice Chair, Parks and as a Block Watch Captain for the Casa Grande Police Department. Currently, Donna is a Casa Grande City Council member.
GC LIVING: So, Donna, give me your lifelong history, where you were born and raised? And, what shaped Donna to the woman she is today?
Donna McBride: I was born in a little town called Vienna, West Virginia, back in the 50s. I lived there up until the time I was 20 years old, and then I moved to Arizona. I have a younger sister and an older brother.
I am a middle child, in every fashion, and every which way: the good, the bad and the ugly. When I was 10 years old, my father died and my mom became a single parent back in the 60s, which was very unusual and very hard. She basically raised us for a number of years by herself, until I hit my teenage years when she remarried.
GC LIVING: You moved to Arizona when you were about 20 years old. Was that when you got married?
Donna McBride: I actually moved out here when I was engaged to be married to someone in West Virginia. One day I woke up and realized that if I stayed there I would probably live on the side of a mountain and have lots of kids, and that wasn’t something that I was ready to do. So, I broke off the engagement and came to Arizona.
GC LIVING: What drew you to Arizona?
Donna McBride: I had a distant uncle in Florence. A girlfriend and I came out the previous winter. Our parents got us tickets for Christmas when it was 75 degrees in Arizona and 10 degrees below zero back in West Virginia. After I went back, I realized there was something more, and it just kept at me. I finished college in mid-May, broke off the engagement and was in Arizona on the 26th of May. I sold everything I had and moved to Arizona.
GC LIVING: What was your first job here in Arizona?
Donna McBride: My first job in Arizona was actually being a DJ at KCKY Radio. I worked under the famous Jack Finlayson. I had absolutely no experience. He hired me and I did commercials and just a number of different things. I also worked part-time at Pizza Hut in Coolidge.
GC LIVING: In college, what did you major in?
Donna McBride: I majored in criminal justice. When I decided to come out here, I really wanted to get into probation work.
GC LIVING: When did you meet your husband?
Donna McBride: I met Mike when he was a very young manager for the gentleman who owned Pizza Huts around the state. They were building the Pizza Hut in Coolidge. While he was going to school at Central Arizona College, he was managing the Pizza Hut, and they hired him to build the one in Coolidge from the ground up. We started dating in February and we were married in May. It was a very short courtship, and I came to Arizona to get away, so I wouldn’t get married, and, within a year, I was married. I followed my heart and 38-years later, he is still the love of my life and my rock.
GC LIVING: Children?
Donna McBride: Yes, we have two boys. Justin is our youngest. He has his own social media company in the Valley. He is a veteran, serving four tours in Iraq in the Marines. Jeremy, our oldest, is a father of three. He and his wife, Randi, live in Goodyear, and he works for Lewis and Roca law firm as an IT director.
GC LIVING: Awesome! So how did you end up at the Pinal County Juvenile Court?
Donna McBride: I had a 20-year career with the national nonprofit agency, SADD, Students Against Destructive Decisions. We lived in the Valley at the time. When that 20-year mark hit, I decided it was time to retire. Shortly after 9/11, I was going to be a young retiree. Mike was born and raised in Casa Grande and we wanted to move back to enjoy the slower pace and small-town atmosphere.
Judge Bill O’Neil had seen me at several events in the Phoenix area. When he heard I was back in Pinal County, he called and asked me if I would come volunteer. That lasted just about a month before he talked me into going to work just a couple days a week to help put together some programs. A couple months later, I was full-time, and I just hit my 15-year mark with the county.
GC LIVING: What were the first programs you helped set up?
Donna McBride: The first program was organizing a volunteer program. Because of my history in the nonprofit world and putting together programs for youth, they wanted me to help do that.
GC LIVING: When did you become involved with CASA For Children (Court Appointed Special Advocate)?
Donna McBride: I became involved with CASA about six years ago, when I was promoted to the unit as the supervisor. CASA is such a specialized program, with the volunteers trained by Arizona. It’s a really delicate program, when you’re trying to combine community volunteers with abused and neglected children to work one-on-one.
It’s a trying program in the respect you’ve got to train people the right way to be the eyes and ears of the court. At the same time, we have a responsibility to protect the children we have in our care now who’ve been removed from their homes because of neglect and abuse.
Unfortunately, we have over 1,100 children in foster care in our county alone; children ages birth to 18.
GC LIVING: Now, with 1,100 children in foster care, are they all in foster homes, or are there group homes. What are the placements?
Donna McBride: There’s a combination. Homes might be with a grandparent, an aunt, or uncle, who have been approved to be a foster home. Unfortunately, if they’re going into a specialized home, we don’t have enough in our county, especially with our younger, 0 to 5 age group. Some of our children are leaving our county. If they are school-age, sometimes we find it necessary to remove them from the school that they’re familiar with. Sometimes they have to be moved out of the county completely or even out of state because we don’t have enough placements for them.
GC LIVING: How does Pinal County look percentagewise compared to our larger neighbors to the north and south? Maricopa County, Pima County? Are we about the same, or do we have a higher percentage of children in foster care?
Donna McBride: We have grown so much in population, that is why the numbers have gone up. And we have a lot of people coming from out of state moving to Arizona. Obviously, Maricopa County is huge and their numbers will forever be much higher than ours. We have grown, we’re the third largest county in Arizona in terms of foster care. Maricopa County is first and Pima County is second, but we’re closing in on them as far as numbers.
GC LIVING: What does the county do to help mitigate or work with the families for either total separation or unification?
Donna McBride: The goal with every child who is removed from their home is to see family reunification. It’s not always a reality because we have families in crisis. We have families that sometimes are homeless. That doesn’t make them horrible parents. It just means they cannot care for their children.
It makes it very difficult for those families to go through the steps they need to go through in order to get children back. We have families that may have multiple families living together in a home. And they may have five, six or more kids in that home from three different families, and there’s a lot of things going on that shouldn’t go on.
I wish we had an answer and had that magic wand that we could help them be successful. But we can’t. What we can do is offer them resources through the Department of Child Safety and groups such as the foster care agencies and through social services that offer services to families in crisis.
GC LIVING: You recently had a cause for celebration.
Donna McBride: We did. We have an annual Adoption Day every November. It happens across the country. This year, we had 45 children adopted to forever homes. We had over 450 people come through the Superior Courthouse in Florence in a matter of a three-hour time period. It was a great celebration. It’s the only time of the year that we open up the courthouse on a Saturday, where people have hearings and they go into the courthouse happy and they leave happy.
GC LIVING: That’s a lot of what you do; facilitate between need and solution.
Donna McBride: Correct. We provide resources for those families.
GC LIVING: How do you deal with the stress of the situations? Just talking off camera we’re ready to cry when we think about all these children.
Donna McBride: People say, “You know, you could probably get more volunteers if you didn’t make it so hard to volunteer.” It is hard. Our volunteers go through more in-depth background checks than many employees will ever go through in their lifetime. If somebody wants to volunteer for our program, we have to make sure that a child is not going to be in danger again.
We have people who come in with very big hearts, but this isn’t the line of work for them because they may have been traumatized as a child themselves. They may have experienced violence in their own life that would really prevent them from making that unbiased decision on behalf of a child. Once they get through all the necessary the steps and intense training, then we have CASA coordinators who mentor them.
There are times we have walked away from a courtroom, get in our cars and cry all the way home. There has to be a balance of self care. I work hard to take care of my staff so they can take care of the volunteers. It’s a very hard job, but in the end we know the kids are worth it.
GC LIVING: Is there a lot of burnout and turnover, both staff and volunteers, because of the heart break involved?
Donna McBride: On a national level the average for a CASA volunteer is about 2.4 years. Pinal County is at 3.2 years. As far as staff, I will tell you that I’m extremely blessed. Our two staff members who were with me when I started are still with us; one has 21 years of experience and the other has 13 years of experience. All six staff have created a special team and are dedicated to working with our volunteers.
GC LIVING: You’ve experienced some personal trauma back when your husband was in law enforcement. Correct?
Donna McBride: Actually, I can say that my personal trauma started when I was 8 years old. My grandmother was brutally murdered in West Virginia. Our family experienced something that wasn’t heard of back then. It was a community where people left their doors open, they left cash on the table, they never worried about anybody stealing anything. A couple years later, I lost my father. He was a very young 34.
Shortly after Mike and I got married he got into the law enforcement field with the sheriff’s department. In 1983, he was on duty the day that Paul Antone, who was the police chief for the Ak-Chin Indian Community, was shot and killed. It was a shoot-out and Mike was on the scene when that occurred. The bullets narrowly missed him but they didn’t miss his friend Paul. It was a life-changing experience for us.
GC LIVING: When did your mom move out here?
Donna McBride: My mom, known by many as Mamma Tess, followed me out here. She and my stepfather started coming out as winter visitors. Their trips out here got longer, and they decided to buy a house. I think they started coming out here in the very late 80s.
GC LIVING: You’ve always been very involved in the community on different boards, commissions, etc. What got you involved in politics?
Donna McBride: I’m not quite sure what got me into politics or what road I took to end up there. I will say that being involved in a community was something that Mamma Tess engaged me in at a very early age. We did everything from Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to volunteering for the American Cancer Society when I was 9 years old, and doing Special Olympics on the weekends in junior high. I’ve always, always volunteered.
GC LIVING: So, who approached you to say, “Donna, run for office.”?
Donna McBride: Well, there were a number of people who talked with me about that and I actually blew them off. I remember one day I was speaking at the 20th anniversary celebration for the Casa Grande Alliance and I was one of the keynote speakers, and when I got done with the presentation, I had this very nice lady walk up to me and she said, “Uh, Donna,” she said, “You did such a wonderful job and you can tell you have the heart of the city in your hands, and you need to move forward with that.” And she said, “I think that you need to run, you know, for mayor.”
I laughed, and she was offended by that. She crossed her arms and I think said, “I’m not kidding.” I just let it go. I remember driving back to work that day and calling Mike to say, “You’re never going to believe what somebody just said to me.” And so I told him, and there was silence on the phone and he said, “Why is that so funny?” It was the first time that I really thought people are serious about this.
I’m always one to do my homework. Over the course of a couple months, I thought about it. She approached me again, and I decided that I can’t do something unless I’m prepared for it. I started going to City Council meetings. I had gone with the youth commission, here and there.
GC LIVING: Will you share with us who that was who kept encouraging you?
Donna McBride: That lady was Judee Jackson. I have a lot of respect for her. She drove a hard bargain. I respected her for that. She gave a very elegant explanation, and I grilled her and she had all the answers.
So, I decided to start going to the council meetings. I started doing research and reading a lot. For two years before I ran for office, I only missed four meetings. I was told my attendance was better than some actually sitting on the council. That wasn’t my intent. My intent was to learn from them and to learn what the city was all about. It was then that I felt I had a good understanding of what the city is about. I wanted to serve, and it wasn’t about sitting up there and being called a councilwoman. It was about serving the community in a different way, and I was blessed enough to have great people believe in me.
GC LIVING: Looking back over your careers, if there’s one moment that stands out to you, “Wow! I did that!” What is it?
Donna McBride: It was when I sat around the table with some seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th graders on the Youth Commission, we had a blank piece of paper and we said, “If you had a community center, what would it look like?” That was almost 12 years ago and those kids are now grown up. Some of them have families of their own. They have businesses. To look at the fact that we helped create the center. I drive by the construction every day, there are times I actually will get choked up because it’s like I am part of that. I am leaving a legacy, and I helped kids feel they were part of something bigger. I’m really proud of that.
GC LIVING: What’s the next road for Donna? Retirement?
Donna McBride: Well, I just hit my 15 years with the county, and I have another five years until retirement. I’m going to keep plugging away at that then probably look at what I want to do when I grow up. I don’t see myself ever leaving Casa Grande. We love it here. We plan to retire here. I would like to do some traveling. I’d like to finish some book projects.