JoAnna Watts

JoAnna Watts ran operations at national retailers such as Target and Toys “R” Us for more than a decade before a volunteer opportunity inspired her to change career paths. Next Month she will graduate from the University of Missouri–St. Louis with a master’s degree in social work and serve as student marshal for the graduating class. (Photo by August Jennewein)

During a nine-year stretch in corporate retail operations, JoAnna Watts served in a variety of capacities and developed a diverse set of skills.

She began by managing a Blockbuster store and then moved to Toys “R” Us, which took her from southern Illinois to Indianapolis. Around 2009, Target offered her a position in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she flourished professionally.

“I held positions in human resources and asset protection,” Watts said. “I ran a couple multimillion-dollar remodels in different states. When Target opened in Canada, I had the opportunity to help train logistic teams up in Calgary for two weeks. I loved it. I learned a lot, but there was always something missing.”

She found that missing piece in social work.

Watts successfully ran retail operations at national companies for more than a decade before changing career paths. Next month, she will graduate from the University of Missouri–St. Louis with a master’s degree in social work and serve as student marshal for the graduating class.

She’s used her training at UMSL and the management skills cultivated in the corporate world to co-found and serve as executive director of the state’s newest Court Appointed Special Advocate office in Farmington, Missouri.

The National Court Appointed Special Advocate/Guardian ad Litem Association for Children is a network of state and local organizations, which provide judge-appointed volunteers to advocate for children’s best interest in court.

The career change seems fitting in retrospect. Watts’ family always prioritized service, and they fostered children throughout her childhood. Her youngest brother was also in the foster care system until her parents adopted him.

Years later, a volunteer opportunity during Target’s annual United Way month would provide a chance for her to follow in her family’s footsteps. Watts was at an event where representatives from a number of charitable and service organizations led informational sessions about their work.

“When I heard about CASA and how community volunteers can get involved to be an advocate for these children in foster care, be their voice, go to court and really be involved through providing a consistent and caring relationship, I thought, ‘Oh man, sign me up. This is wonderful,’” she recalled.

A Tennessee court officially swore in Watts as a CASA volunteer in June 2014.

Volunteers are appointed by a judge to a case involving a child, or sometimes a sibling group, in foster care because of abuse or neglect. They then establish a relationship with the child and those involved in the child’s life, interviewing biological parents, foster parents and teachers.

That groundwork goes into reports presented at court hearings, where CASA volunteers serve as a voice for children who have been traumatized and abruptly introduced into new surroundings. It opened Watts’ eyes to those realities, as well as the extent of the foster care population.

Watts continued volunteering with CASA at the Jefferson County office when she moved to Farmington in 2017. It was also about the time she gave more thought to going back to school.

“I always knew I wanted to get my master’s degree,” Watts said. “I just never knew what to get it in. Whatever I got my master’s in, I wanted to make sure it was something that I was passionate about, something that would really be impactful, not just for my life but for whoever I was working with or working for.”

Her purpose and academic aspirations came into focus after noticing the need for social service resources in the rural Farmington area.

“It just hit me one day as I was working on one of the cases that I wanted to get involved with social work,” she said.

One name kept coming back to her as she started investigating social work programs: UMSL.

Several factors made it an attractive choice. The UMSL at Mineral Area College’s Park Hills campus meant she could take some classes near home and the tuition was affordable. A meeting with Diane O’Brien, the MSW program director, settled Watts’ decision.

After 15 years out of the classroom, Watts was somewhat overwhelmed at first but quickly adjusted. She found interacting with her classmates, who came from all walks of life, and professors invaluable.

The discussions helped Watts hone her critical thinking skills after a corporate career where policies are explicitly laid out and followed. Conversely, her experience helped others understand how to deal with the management structure of the agencies they were working with to more effectively raise concerns.

Going into 2020, the new CASA office started to take shape.

An acquaintance of Watts’ sister-in-law was interested in bringing the organization to the Farmington area, and she created a steering committee to start the process. At the same time, Watts was becoming versed in the operation of nonprofits.

“I was talking with my husband one day after one of my classes where we learned about the organization of nonprofits and how they work, and I was like, ‘I can run this nonprofit. It’s literally what I do,” she said. “What I’ve been trained to do is to run a business, and that’s what this is. I was able to apply all of my background in retail management, but had I not been prepared through UMSL, I wouldn’t have that social work perspective.”

Watts joined the board of directors as executive director, and after processing a mountain of paperwork and gaining approval from the 24th Judicial Circuit, the Juvenile Office and a judge, the stage was set to begin fundraising during spring 2020.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“I had to quickly figure out what we were going to do because failing was not an option,” Watts said. “This program, this organization, was needed in our community.”

The board of directors pivoted and held a virtual event at the end of May called the, “No Gala, Gala.” It was a resounding success, raising about $10,000 through sponsorships and donations. The organization continued its fundraising momentum throughout the year, throwing small virtual events during the summer and culminating with the “Festival of Trees” in December.

CASA displayed over 30 Christmas trees decorated by local schools, businesses and organizations at Farmington City Hall, and the public bid on them via silent auction. The event raised more than $20,000.

In addition to fundraising successes, Watts said the new office has recruited 20 CASA volunteers who serve children in four counties covered by the 24th Judicial Circuit. She highlighted their dedication, noting they sign up for an initial 18-month commitment, go through 30 hours of pre-service training and complete 12 hours of continuing education training each year.

Watts is working to expand the office, but thus far, she feels fortunate to have the support of the community and to help provide advocates for those who need them most.

“No matter what changes that child goes through, no matter how many times they move foster homes or change schools or change caseworkers, they have the same CASA,” she said. “That CASA is appointed on that case, they will remain on that case until it is closed and until that child is in a safe and permanent home. They really are amazing people.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe