Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 6:17 PM on Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Grandparents raising grandchildren form support group

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

"Grandfamilies" is how Linda Price describes them — families headed by grandparents whose visions of retirement have been altered by the choice to raise their grandchildren. That life-altering decision rates a capital "G," according to Price, coordinator of the Grandfamilies Network Project, organized under Volunteers of America Alaska in Anchorage.

Grandparents in that role are invited to a meeting of a local GNP group at the Friendship Center, 6-7:30 p.m. Sept. 21. The local effort is coordinated by Jody Levit and Carol Coleman.

In 2006, Jody and her husband, Barry, were newlyweds. Both in their 50s, they were making plans for the years ahead.

"We bought land in Costa Rica and were going to become macadamia nut farmers," said Levit.

That changed when, in May 2007, their first grandchild was born. Two and a half months later and circumstances such that her parents were unable to care for her, the infant arrived at the Levits' home.

"I knew the minute she got off the plane that she'd never leave our home, and so we began our journey," said Levit of her and Barry's decision to become full-time grandparents.

Less than a year later, in April 2008, another granddaughter was born and immediately came to live with the Levits. The following year, the Levits adopted the girls.

Then, in January 2010, a brother to the two girls was born.

"He went to live with other family members because we really felt we could not take another one on," said Levit. "But then, due to circumstances, the Office of Children Services called us and said we had him."

Bringing a third child into their home wasn't that simple.

"He went into emergency foster care for two weeks while we discussed it, prayed about it, discussed with family what we'd do," said Levit. "The bottom line was we could just not break up the family. We took Jack on and have had him for a year and a half."

Adoption proceedings scheduled for Sept. 22 will officially make the Levits a family of five.

Coleman's "Grandfamily" story began nine years ago when her grandson came to live with her. The home into which he and his two older sisters were born was a "lifestyle that destroys families," said Coleman. She has since adopted her grandson, who turns 10 in November. Coleman is 67.

"I said I'd take him for two months while his mom got her life together, but she never did," said Coleman. "Then it reached a point where his welfare, his success, his right to live and for me to do my best for him became paramount."

That attitude is typical in Grandfamilies, said Price.

"They are such motivated people, eager, hungry for information to help themselves and other Grandfamilies, the most extroverted people I've ever seen," said Price, who has coordinated GNP for two years. "They're smart as a whip, kind, not just sitting back and taking care of their own grandchildren, but actually willing to give more to others. I enjoy all of them."

GNP began in Alaska 10 years ago, with a Brookdale Foundation grant. It continues to operate through a state-awarded National Family Caregiver Grant. There are community groups Anchorage, the Wasilla-Palmer-Eagle River area, Juneau and Fairbanks, as well as the one starting in Homer.

"The most recent data we have from the Census Bureau is that more than 5,000 grandparents are raising 8,500 grandchildren (in Alaska)," said Price.

Some of the grandchildren are born with health issues stemming from drug and alcohol use by the parents. Grandparents may have their own health issues associated with aging. They also may be on fixed incomes and lack support and childcare.

"It's very, very stressful, yet the grandparents I talk to wouldn't have it any other way," said Price. "They have big, big hearts and love their children and are teaching them really good values and working so hard at it. I honestly can't say too much about them."

Price offers annual training on every area grandparents face, including legal, medical and education. She informs them of available resources, provides counseling and maintains contact by phone, email and monthly teleconferences.

"The grandparents advocate for the child and I advocate for the grandparents," said Price. "I treat them like professionals. ... I'm just giving them more of the science, education and research behind the issues and things they and their children are confronted by."

Following in Price's footsteps, and with the Levit family relocating to Coupeville, Wash., the end of this month, Coleman has committed to make herself available to other Grandfamilies on the southern peninsula.

"I have a mail route and can pull over and talk," she said of her ability to take phone calls if needed.

The Sept. 21 meeting will be an opportunity for Grandfamilies to meet, share their experiences and discuss their needs in a nonjudgmental and confidential environment. Daycare can be provided by contacting Coleman in advance.

"I want people to feel they can open up and talk or they can cry or do whatever they want to do, with the knowledge that they're not alone," said Coleman. "There's help right here."

Coleman can be reached at 399-3011.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.