Saving kids’ lives driving passion for Voices for Children and gala co-chairs


By Kathy Day

Longtime friends Lise Wilson and Debby Fishburn share a passion for giving back to their community. Now they’re sharing something else – with their husbands they are chairing the annual gala for Voices for Children, a nonprofit they say saves children’s lives.

The 10th annual Starry, Starry Night gala on Sept. 29 will raise funds to support the organization that provides Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) for the more than 5,600 children in the San Diego County foster care system. With its new venue at the Rancho Valencia Resort, which has just undergone an extensive renovation, the event will feature entertainment by blues guitarist Coco Montoya, who for a decade played with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers before starting his own band.

“Through no fault of their own these children who are in the dependency court system need someone to speak up for them,” said Fishburn, a former executive with one of the nation’s top retail stores who served on the Voices board for nine years and as board chair. “It is hard not to be compelled by the mission.”

Wilson, an attorney who was named to the VFC board only a year ago, said she was introduced to the nonprofit when she attended a previous Starry, Starry Night gala where she heard from a teen foster child who “spoke quite movingly about her experience … I heard what could be done through CASAs.”

CASAs, who undergo an intense training program and make an 18-month commitment, stand up for the children who are in foster or group homes, investigating legal, educational and health issues and working with all of the parties involved in the case. They make recommendations about the child’s placement, whether it is to remain in a foster home, be reunited or adopted. And many, Wilson noted, stay with their case children for years, even until they age out of the foster system at 18 or 19.

Fishburn learned about the program when she was in the Junior League. One of their projects was reading court files on dependency court cases – a task now handled by Voices for Children.

“Several of our members were very active with Voices in its infancy,” she said. Then there was a small office in the juvenile court with a staff of two; now the staff totals 45 and while there’s still a small office in the Kearny Mesa courthouse to handle day-to-day court activities, there’s also a full suite of offices offsite for the administration, including CEO Sharon M. Lawrence, and supervisors who oversee the CASAs.

Fishburn and Wilson met about 30 years ago when Wilson and her date Steven Strauss – and now husband -— went to a party with a new group of young lawyers where their friend Wain Fishburn “introduced a new gal into the group of lawyers,” Wilson recalled..

Soon they were attending each other’s weddings and becoming fast friends. Through the years both have been involved in numerous charitable organizations, including Las Patronas, the philanthropy that raises funds for a number of causes throughout San Diego County.

Fishburn served as president and co-chair of the organization’s Jewel Ball – one of the county’s premiere charity events. Wilson, who became involved with Las Patronas at her friend’s urging, also chaired the Jewel Ball, which is held each year at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club.

Now they are putting their expertise in organizing charity events to work for Voices for Children’s Sept. 29 gala.

While their excitement about the evening from the menu to the venue is evident, it’s the cause that has them working countless hours. From tasting what they say will be an exciting menu put together by Rancho Valencia Resort’s executive chef Eric Bauer to the music and live and silent auctions, it is the cause that keeps them going — and the stories that will be shared bout the CASAs’ work.

“Our focus is on Voices’ mission statement,” Wilson said, but the idea is to plan “a fun event that will make them want to come back, to involve people.”

Fishburn noted that a successful fundraiser “showcases they agency. We only have people’s attention for a short time. We want to educate them and get their support.”

Because Voices for Children is 99 percent privately funded, she added, “we are reliant on people contributing from our community. … This is our opportunity to shine a light on the issue and raise the profile going forward.”

With 400 tickets available – slightly more than two dozen were left at press time – the two are hopeful they can raise a lot of money..

Fishburn said the organization is not easy to explain in one word – “We don’t cure cancer” – but it is a worthy mission.

When Voices presents its orientation programs to prospective volunteers, one of the points they make is how many children are in foster care, representing the figure graphically in a drawing of a line of nearly 20 school buses filled with children.

This year, Voices aims to enlist 482 volunteers to supplement the 800 already serving – not nearly enough to provide a CASA for every child. In the first two months of the fiscal year, they have recruited 85.

“Our goal is to have every child in the system have a CASA,” Wilson said.

She emphasized that her friends who are judges in the dependency court have told her how much they appreciate and respect the CASAs on the cases they hear. And she added, they are quite receptive to the recommendations they make.

It costs about $2,500 a year to support each volunteer, Wilson said, and while not everyone can be a CASA, she said she hopes people will “fund a CASA” – or half a CASA or even a part of one.

“There is an amazing return on investment,” Fishburn added as Wilson chimed in, “It’s a bargain.”

The two women understand the impact of charitable giving and with their husbands have done their share through the years.

A practicing attorney until 1998 — and before joining Las Patronas and then Voices — Wilson had focused her efforts on the visual and performing arts, serving on the advisory board for The New Children’s Museum and working with the San Diego Performing Arts League , San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego Symphony and the La Jolla Playhouse. In each of those groups, as well as at her children’s schools – The Gillispie School and The Bishop’s School – she has been at the forefront of many a fundraising event.

Fishburn, too, has a long list of activities, including being on The Gillispie School board when they launched a capital campaign to rebuild the small La Jolla private school serving children from pre-K to sixth grade. She, too, has supported Bishop’s, the Preuss School at UCSD and the Sanford-Burnham Institute of Medical Research. She was honored by the Salvation Army as a Woman of Dedication.

Their husbands are both partners at Cooley LLP, one of San Diego’s best known law firms. Strauss specializes in complex business litigation (his wife’s specialty was complex civil litigation) and Wain Fishburn, a founding partner of the firm, is in the business department, where he has worked with an array of public and private companies, many in the biotech and technology arenas.

Strauss serves on the La Jolla Playhouse board and is a past president; Fishburn chairs the board of the Sanford-Burnham Institute and the Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance and has been active with CONNECT since its early years.

With their connections and experience, the two couples are aiming to attract some first-time attendees to join them on the Starry, Starry Night.

“It is time and money well spent on a good organization,” Debby Fishburn said, as her friend nodded in agreement. “And the impact on our society is huge.”

Editor’s note: Freelance writer Kathy Day is a Voices for Children CASA who joined the program after retiring from her post as editor of the La Jolla Light.