Seven years ago, Maryann Yeater and her husband took custody of their now-9-year-old granddaughter.
“We’re glad we did what we did,” she said. “It may have changed our lives, but it was right to do.”
Yeater is one of many Harrisburg-area grandparents who have found themselves in the position of raising their grandchildren. Fortunately, they don’t have to do so alone or in isolation.
For help, they can count on Dolorez Cobb-Jones and the organization she founded in 2013, Grandparents Involved from the Start (GIFTS).
“I was a teacher and school principal, and I had many meetings with grandparents raising their grandchildren,” Cobb-Jones said. “So, I thought that it would be helpful to design a program to provide support to them.”
Cobb-Jones said that GIFTS provides information on the “day-to-day operations of raising a child.” The organization offers informational meetings, support through the Grandparents Information Forum and advice on helpful resources. Experts share information on topics such as homeschooling, voting, mental health and finances.
“If she can’t help you, she knows the person to send you to,” said Cynthia Crystal, who has raised her 12-year-old granddaughter from birth.
According to Cobb-Jones, grandparents raising their grandchildren face challenges in three areas: self-care, guardianship and finances.
Grandparents, often on fixed incomes, may need to put off retirement. At 64 years old, Crystal found herself in this situation.
“I thought I deserved to be home, but my pocketbook didn’t say that,” she said, with a laugh.
GIFTS helps families with weekly fruit and vegetable distributions at the Neighborhood Center on N. 3rd Street in Harrisburg and through grocery gift cards, Christmas gift distributions and more.
Even families that are financially secure may experience the physical and emotional strains of raising a grandchild. But grandparents often push through and neglect their own physical and emotional wellbeing, Cobb-Jones said.
“They say, ‘I’m just gonna do what I have to do,’” she said.
But knowing that they aren’t isolated in the journey is helpful.
“I didn’t realize until I got into the program how many grandparents are raising their grandchildren today,” Yeats said.
Best Foot Forward
One challenge often faced by grandparents is education, including the dreaded homework assignment.
Both Crystal and Yeats described homework as challenging and stressful—especially math. In response, GIFTS invited a teacher to help grandparents understand today’s math, which is not what Crystal described as the simpler math of her generation.
As a former educator, Cobb-Jones is especially helpful with educational concerns. Crystal said that her granddaughter experienced racial slurs at school and that Cobb-Jones guided her through that situation.
Another significant concern for grandparents is guardianship.
Cobb-Jones said that many grandparents don’t have legal custody of their grandchildren. To families, it seems simpler to keep the system out of the process, and seeking guardianship or adoption is costly.
“Eventually, the parent has to waive their rights,” said Cobb-Jones. “And, in some cases, depending on the relationship that the parent has with their mother or father or grandparent, it can be difficult.”
Not having custody places both the grandparents and child in a precarious and complicated position, especially when it comes time to register for school or apply for some type of assistance. While GIFTS doesn’t offer legal advice, it can direct people where to go and act as a sounding board for overwhelmed grandparents.
Even in their struggles, both Yeats and Crystal carry themselves with the quiet acceptance that their life’s mission changed when their grandchildren entered their homes.
“The bottom line is, if we didn’t take her, she would be in foster care, and we didn’t want that because she is our granddaughter,” Yeats said.
Crystal soldiers on, as well.
“Can’t waste energy on something you can’t change,” she said. “Put your best foot forward.”
Help Out There
About 100 grandparents are involved in GIFTS, and they experience a wide range of emotions, Cobb-Jones said. Some experience anger, and ask themselves, “Why?” she said.
Trauma frames some of these situations—trauma for both the child and the grandparent. In one instance, grandparents had to care for their grandchildren after their father killed their mother—the grandparent’s daughter.
GIFTS is present for these parents, to listen and guide.
The organization’s funding comes from some grants, but primarily through a fashion show, which was sidelined last year due to the pandemic.
Fortunately, GIFTS recently received the MLK Peace Project award, which will provide professional development and a holiday collection. And, recently, GIFTS received funds from a Dauphin County local share gaming grant for “GrandPads,” a user-friendly iPad with larger text for aging eyes.
There are many ways to help those raising their grandchildren, though some grandparents are reluctant to reach out.
“There’s help out there,” Crystal said. “You just have to ask for it.”
Cobb-Jones suggested that relatives of those raising grandkids should gather and talk about how they can help. Those ways include simply offering help, taking a meal or picking up the child from school.
“You know, give the grandparent a break, to go get their nails done,” said Cobb- Jones.
Even with help, the life-changing challenges of caring for grandchildren can’t be denied. For those who accept the challenge, they have the support of GIFTS and advice from folks like Crystal.
“Be strong, hang in there,” she said. “No time for a pity party.”
To learn more about GIFTS, visit www.giftsgivelife.com.
If you like what we do, please support our work. Become a Friend of TheBurg!