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Ethan Mathes doesn’t want to take anything for granted.

That might explain why the 17-year-old Carterville High School senior and many of his classmates have been showing up early for school, or staying late, practically since the start of the year in August.

They know there are children less fortunate.

“I know kids are left behind," Mathes said. "I know that I have helped them.”

His help started three years ago, when, through building trade classes or woodworking or a host of other classes, he first became aware of Court Appointed Special Advocates in Williamson County.

His instructor, Mike Fleming, has opened students’ eyes to the world of abused and neglected children since CASA held its first playhouse fundraiser 21 years ago.

CASA of Williamson County and its 70-plus volunteer advocates, as court-appointed officers, work with victims up to the age of 17 to ensure their best interests in the juvenile legal, coordinating their efforts alongside that of judges, attorneys and social workers.

In addition to four paid staff members, the organization relies heavily on its volunteers, as well as donations. The playhouse fundraiser is its largest, bringing in close to a fifth of the organization’s $100,000 budget, including advocate training.

That’s why Fleming has remained committed to participating in the playhouse program, as have other high schools in Williamson County along with a fairly new participant in Carbondale High School.

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“I think there is a really neat transformation that takes place,” Fleming said of his 60 or so students and their work on the school’s playhouse. “We are producing a giant gift to the kids that CASA services. That I think is reward enough.”

This year’s gift, a submarine playhouse with a working periscope, weighs close to 1,000 pounds, measuring 22-feet in length and 9-feet high.

A firehouse, covered wagon and a camper are among other playhouses now stationed at Illinois Star Centre Mall in Marion.

Tickets are now being sold at the mall for a 5 p.m., Dec. 21 drawing for the playhouses. Tickets are $2 each or $10 for six tickets.

“To train an advocate is approximately $800. It’s right around $3,000 for us to put an advocate on a case with one child,” said Jayme Frey Figueroa, Williamson County CASA executive director.

This year, the agency served 113 children, 70 of them being newborns to 5 year olds, she said. Some cases can go on for years.

Cassy Loyd, of Marion, was impressed not only with CASA but the playhouses, too.

“They are really well made. I’m impressed with the work that the high school does on these every year,” she said. “I’m impressed that children being in high school age would care like that and we need that.”

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