POLK COUNTY -- Katey Axtell, the new director of Polk County's CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) program, hopes the beginning of her tenure with the organization will be a time of growth.Volunteer CASAs play a critical role for foster children, becoming a child's "eyes and ears" in the court system. A CASA's main responsibility is assuring children in foster care are having all their needs met until a permanent home can be found.Polk County's program is woefully understaffed though, with only 19 CASAs to represent 300 children in foster care."We want to increase our CASAs by 70 percent," Axtell said, naming her top job priority. "That's what we would like, what we are working for. We have a busy year ahead of us."Axtell, who started the job in April, will be one of those new CASAs. She is in the middle of the 10-week CASA training class and can't wait to start working in the field.The opportunity to work with and on behalf of children was the main reason she applied for the position. Axtell has a degree in K-9 education and worked with low-income students in the Salem-Keizer School District before taking a job with Marion-Polk Food Share as its agency relations coordinator.When the job was advertised after former CASA director Chris Olson stepped down in December, Axtell immediately applied."I knew I had to have it," she said. "I loved my job at the food share, but I wanted to work with kids again."Axtell came into it knowing that she would have to concentrate on raising awareness. CASA has already held a successful fundraiser, "Dine Out for CASA," in partnership with local restaurants that will help pay for a recruiting campaign.Axtell is working with CASA Peer Coordinator Mike Barnett and Advocates Coordinator Tamera Boggan on creating a new brochure and volunteer handbook, and preparing for the organization's big recruiting push at Dallas Summerfest.They are counting on exposure at Summerfest with a booth and a float in the parade to help."The goal with Summerfest is to let people know we are here and the need is very great," Barnett said. "We need people."Barnett said becoming a CASA volunteer doesn't require a background in law or child development -- the 10-week training class covers those details -- but just a "heart for children" and about 10 hours per month. The average case is resolved in about 18 months, but volunteers should be ready to commit two years, Boggan added.CASAs are accountable only to the judge presiding over the case and have access to all information from the court, schools and health providers relating to the child. CASAs also are required to conduct school and home visits periodically."We want to make a difference in their lives and give them a family," Axtell said. "Every child needs a `forever home.'"For more information or to volunteer: 503-623-9268, ext. 1301.