Organizations: Chatham Savannah Citizen Advocacy
“Can you and will you – are you willing, can you take the life of another person more seriously?” That’s the question Tom Kohler has been asking Savannah residents for more than 30 years.
Kohler, who’s coordinator of Chatham-Savannah Citizen Advocacy (CSCA), says the organization exists to protect disabled people from indifference – be it on the part of society, large organizations or their own family. “The only way a person can be protected from indifference is by another person deciding that they really matter,” he says. “If nobody really thinks you matter as a person there’s no law, there’s no regulation, none of that will work. Our work involves ... asking people to align themselves with the interests of individual people through personal relationship.”
CSCA accomplishes that by aligning “protégés” – those in society who are vulnerable, isolated and alone – with “citizen advocates,” whose actions on behalf of their protégé may run the gamut from friendship to mentoring to advocating for them in the healthcare or legal systems. Both protégés and advocates are referred to the organization via word of mouth. “What we do is completely based on people talking to people. What we do is completely based on knowing people,” Kohler says.
And Kohler’s had time to become well-entrenched in the community. Born in Savannah, he’s been with CSCA since its founding in the 1970s as part of the Georgia Advocacy Office and watched it grow into a separate nonprofit entity that derives 6o to 65 percent of its budget from local sources and about 35 percent from the Georgia Advocacy Office.
Fund-raising efforts are low key – not surprising for an organization with one full-time staffer (in addition to Kohler) and two part-timers. “It’s individual people going and talking to their friends, usually one at a time,” he says.
And clearly a good many people are talking about CSCA. The organization recently held its 30th annual meeting – which Kohler refers to as a “friend raiser.” They’d planned for a turnout of 240, but 350 showed up to what was billed as “the biggest and best covered dish supper in Chatham County.”
“The core here,” he says, “is that nobody’s too anything. Nobody’s too big to become a citizen advocate, nobody’s too … . It’s an open question as to what people can come to mean to one another.”