The first time a judge asked Vince Rieger to speak in court, his collar felt too tight, his hands clammed up and his voice wavered.
In Rieger's three years as a guardian ad litem, representing the interests of children involved in cases of abuse or neglect, he's since grown used to speaking in the courtroom. But the jitters returned last month when he accepted the award for volunteer of the year at the program's statewide banquet in Orlando.
Rieger, 68, was chosen from 20 guardian ad litems who were each selected as the volunteer of the year in their court district. There are about 7,000 guardians across the state.
"It was just an honor to even be with that group of 20," said Rieger, who lives in Dade City. "I just know how hard other guardians work; they're just as dedicated as I am."
Marco Sandusky, area coordinator of the guardian ad litem program, warned that Rieger would brush off any excess praise.
"He's definitely not in this to take credit. He's in this because he knows there's a great need and he can make a difference."
Guardian ad litems are appointed by judges to represent the best interests of children in cases involving allegations of abuse or neglect. In Pasco County, the program has 150 volunteers, only enough to serve about half of the 800 children it represents.
Rieger joined in 2006, shortly before retiring from his job as an electronics technician. A friend suggested he would find the work meaningful.
"You donate your time, but the reward far exceeds what you give in," Rieger said.
"When you see kids go to a loving, permanent family, it chokes you up. You know your effort has brought a positive direction to their life."
For Rieger, who is divorced and lives alone, the work provides a sense of purpose. His son is 37 and lives in Hawaii. The children he advocates for become like family.
Which is why he puts in nearly 10 times the hours of the typical volunteer.
Sandusky said most guardians work with one or two children at a time. Rieger currently has eight.
He spends hours researching the various medical conditions he comes across in his case work, including bipolar disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He isn't afraid to strike up a conversation with a pharmacist about the side effects of various medications.
He has broken the program's recommendations and given out his phone number to the children he works with and their families, which means plenty of calls at all hours as a child or parent talks through a difficult situation.
Before the program, Rieger's only courtroom experience was one day of jury duty. At first, he feared he would misstate a fact in court or get contradicted by an attorney.
But he's since mastered the protocol and now helps volunteers with some of the other tasks of working as a guardian, including dealing with parents in denial or getting a child to open up.
He can't go into the details of his work for confidentiality reasons, but he said sometimes what he sees upsets him.
"There's some angry, dysfunctional people that have children, unfortunately," he said.
But perhaps the hardest part of the work is the ending, Rieger said. No matter what the outcome of a case, the guardian is not allowed to contact the child.
Rieger agrees it's best for the children to move on with their new adoptive families or get re-established with their parents. He doesn't want to remind them of a difficult chapter in their lives. Still, it's tough running into them in town.
"When you have someone in your life for a year and a half, two years, it's like they become relatives," he said.
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 435-7312.
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Want to help
You don't have to work as many hours as Vince Rieger to make a difference. The Guardian Ad Litem program seeks volunteers ages 19 and older to spend a few hours a month working as an advocate for children involved in cases of abuse or neglect. To become a guardian, you need to submit to a background check and provide references. After initial interviews, volunteers participate in 30 hours of training. The next training course begins Sept. 14. No legal experience is required. Call (727) 834-3493 or (352) 521-5178.