Well on her way to reach her goal, Cagle said Calvin sociology Professor Don Smalligan offered this advice: "'Mary, if you really want to make a difference in the lives of children, get a master's of social work and a law degree.' I have always appreciated his wise counsel."
On to Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., she went. While a student there, she met fellow law student Peter Cagle, a native Floridian, got married and went with Peter to his hometown of Miami so they could both begin legal careers.
Mary Cagle wound up in a State's Attorney's Office and worked under a famous mentor. "'Anything for the kids' was our team's motto," she said, "and I was fortunate to work under the guidance of Janet Reno.
"It seemed to me that the prevailing tone of legal community at that time was 'Let's lock 'em up!' whenever a person ran afoul of the system," she recalled. "We tried to interject some consideration for the family-the kids-that were affected by these decisions."
For 10 years, Cagle worked alongside Reno, until her mentor became the U.S. attorney general under President Clinton.
Cagle served in the State's Attorney's Office for 22 years, rising to the position of chief assistant state's attorney. And then, a call from a local nonprofit gave her career a sudden jolt.
"I was asked to consider applying for the CEO position at CHARLEE Homes for Children. It seemed like a shot out of the blue, but the more I learned about CHARLEE, the more I saw the fit," she said.
CHARLEE (Children Have All Rights: Legal, Educational, Emotional) helps severely abused and neglected children in the foster care system of Miami-Dade County.
"I started out at Calvin wanting to help kids through being a social worker," Cagle said, "and decades later, I was being led to a social agency that has advocacy for children as its central mission."
Florida had been in the process of privatizing child welfare for a number of years, and CHARLEE had made a name for itself since its founding in 1983 as an outstanding provider of services to children in the foster care system.
In 2002, the Florida Legislature voted to have CHARLEE begin the Model Foster Care Project, an 18-month study of the best methods to improve the foster care system. And in 2005, the organization was presented with the challenge to be the major player in providing hope and help to kids in challenging situations.
"Everything changed," Cagle said. "CHARLEE basically doubled in size, from 500 to over 1,000 kids, as a result of the Legislature making the change from government to private leadership. We now operate a network of over 110 homes in the region."
There are common challenges in helping kids in the foster care system: high caregiver turnover, disrupted and multiple placements, and runaway behavior.
As she looks over downtown Miami from her office windows, Cagle finds herself at times sighing and at times smiling.
"The work that we do is daunting: so many kids, so many hurdles they must get over," she said. "But it is also work with immense rewards, for the kids, for families, for our community. I definitely feel God's call to be here."
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