BROOKSVILLE - Five years ago, Cheryl McCormick completed her Guardian ad Litem training, and for her first case, met three scared children who had been taken out of their home.
McCormick said one of the children was a little girl, 4 or 5 years old.
"I got down on her level and told her who I was and I said 'I'm there for you. I'll be there for you in court,'" McCormick said.
On her third weekly visit with the children, the girl was excited to see her, and told McCormick she saw a movie with a character just like her guardian in it.
She couldn't remember the name, McCormick said, but described it as having a tin man and a "good witch that kept all the munchkins safe." McCormick realized the little girl thought of her as Glinda in "The Wizard of Oz."
This week, McCormick was named 2013 Hero of the Year at Habitat for Humanity Hernando County's Building Hope in Hernando Heroes' Gala.
"It was a total surprise," McCormick said on Wednesday. "It's so nice for the program. We need publicity."
Guardian ad Litem is a nationwide program of volunteers who advocate for children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned, and removed from their homes by the court.
"These children are taken from their homes through no fault of their own, sometimes in the middle of the night," McCormick said. "They may be placed with a relative, but many times there is no relative and they go to foster care, which can be frightening (to them)."
The court-appointed volunteers advocate for a child's "immediate interests," McCormick said. They visit with the child at least once a month, and get access to the child's school, medical and parent records necessary to make independent recommendations to the court.
McCormick said she has recommended a child be put on a different medication, and is in court every step of the way.
Nearly 350 children in Hernando County are under court supervision, McCormick said, though the number always changes. With just 72 guardians in the program, volunteers are always needed.
McCormick, a retired pharmaceutical rep and former Orlando police officer is handling five cases. Other volunteers work full-time, usually taking on one case at a time, McCormick said.
"I had never known a guardian personally, I read something in the paper and thought it was interesting," McCormick said. "I got involved, more involved than I thought I'd be, because children are in need."
McCormick said being a child advocate is the most rewarding thing she's done.
"To make a difference in the life of a child is priceless," McCormick said.
As Hero of the Year, Habitat for Humanity donated $1,000 to the Guardian ad Litem program.
The next Guardian ad Litem training, which takes 30 hours, is set for March, but also available online at http://guardianadlitem.org. More information is available by calling (352) 274-5231.