By ERIKA ANDERSON-Staff Writer | Published January 5, 2006
Every Tuesday a group of men and women gathers in a small classroom at Transfiguration Church.
As the members greet each other, the small talk quickly centers around the children in their lives.
“Where’s your lovely wife, Joe?” one asks another.
“She’s at home,” he replies. “We’ve got two sick little ones.”
“Tell me about it,” adds one woman. “Mine threw up in the car on the way here.”
They are normal adults, talking about the situations typical parents must deal with in raising their children.
But this group is far from typical. For many of them, the first steps they took as parents were 20 or even 30 years ago. Now raising their grandchildren, they are learning that things are very different this time around.
The leader of the group is Jeannie DeCarlo, 53, a fiercely determined woman who pursues her mission unceasingly. She began the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group at Transfiguration Church to help others in her same situation. DeCarlo’s red hair is the first clue of the fiery spark that lies within her, and she possesses a resolute passion for those she holds dear to her, especially her granddaughter, Ansley.
Ansley is a sparkling, happy 3-year-old. Her bedroom is decorated in baby Disney characters, and she and her “Nana” enjoy singing Raffi songs in the car. Though she bounces through the house with the carefree joy found in most children her age, DeCarlo worries about the long-term effects that living without her parents will have on Ansley.
Ansley’s father is one of DeCarlo’s four children, all of whom are boys. At 14, he started using drugs.
“We tried everything—counseling, community service, tough love,” she said. “As a mother it’s very hard to watch your child self-destruct.”
Despite her best attempts, however, the downward spiral that her son, now 27, was on continued, and DeCarlo remembers clearly the day she found out she was going be a grandmother.
“I remember he walked into my kitchen with his girlfriend, and they sat down at my bar and giggled and said, ‘We’re going to have a baby,’” she said.
“It wasn’t long after Ansley was born that (my son and his girlfriend) broke up. That’s when we took her in.”
DeCarlo hoped against odds that her son would change his ways when Ansley was born.
“I admit, I was a foolish parent. I hoped that she would change his life,” she said. “But he’s a Disneyland dad. He wants to play, but he doesn’t want the responsibility. You try to do all the rational things with irrational things because you love them. It’s like a merry-go-round. You keep talking, you keep hoping, but it’s not going to click.”
DeCarlo’s voice breaks when she talks about her son, the emotion of her loss filling the space around her.
“It was really and truly within the last year that I turned this child over to God. It was like I wrapped him in a warm, fuzzy blanket and said, ‘Take him, because I can’t.’”
But she has taken Ansley. She and her husband, Lou, who is not Ansley’s biological grandfather, have sacrificed to give Ansley a “normal childhood.”
DeCarlo had to give up her job and her salary to devote all her energy to her granddaughter.
“I feel so blessed that my husband makes a decent salary and I could afford to stop working,” she said.
But not every grandparent is as fortunate, and DeCarlo felt a strong calling to help others.
“I knew there had to be other grandparents out there doing this without financial support,” she said.
Sure enough, when DeCarlo decided to form her support group with the blessing of Transfiguration pastor, Msgr. Pat Bishop, other metro Atlanta grandparents responded quickly.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 6.3 percent of U.S. children under the age of 18—4.5 million children—are living in households headed by grandparents. In Georgia, a grandparent is the primary caregiver in more than 92,000 households.
Grandparents raising their grandchildren face a wealth of challenges—social, financial, legal and emotional. At Georgia State University, a program called “Project Healthy Grandparents” provides support services to the grandparents.
According to Judy Perdue, community partnerships coordinator for PHG, the program, which began in 1995, serves 55 families at any given time. The average grandparent-headed family has 2.4 children, and the average grandparent is 56 years old. Most of the grandchildren involved in PHG have been neglected, abused or abandoned by their biological parents, often due to substance abuse, death or incarceration.
Perdue said one of the biggest challenges facing grandparents who are raising their grandchildren is the issue of “respite.”
“People who are near the age of retirement all of a sudden have to worry about childcare, and ‘do I quit my job or spend money on childcare?’ It’s a very big problem,” she said. “The children are younger, and the grandparents are getting older. It’s a difficult situation. Plus, these grandparents have lost a child, some to homicide, illness or incarceration, and the children have lost their parents. Both sides are dealing with loss.”
Joseph Drewry and his wife, Sharon, are going through the adoption process with their granddaughter, Taylor, 5, and grandson, Joby, 4.
“We could be buying a new house with all the money we’ve spent in court costs,” he said.
Still, the affable grandfather who refers to his grandchildren as “my little guys,” knows that they are worth every cent.
Drewry’s son, the father of the children, was a “model child until he was 15,” Drewry said.
“He’s now a worthless individual. That sounds like a terrible thing to say about your own child, and it hurts to say it, but I also know I have been through enough with him to know it’s the truth,” he said.
His son became heavily involved in drugs and alcohol and at one point was living with the children in a home with a methamphetamine lab in the basement. The Drewrys immediately went to court and petitioned for, and won, temporary custody of the children.
With the Transfiguration support group, Drewry, 59, and his wife have found a place where they are understood and accepted.
“Socially, for obvious reasons, we don’t fit in with our normal peer group because of our little guys,” he said. “We were looking to retire eventually. I used to play golf three days a week. Now everything has to be kid-friendly. If we move, we have to look for a house with a good elementary school.”
Despite the hardships, Drewry feels blessed to watch his grandchildren blossom.
“With all the negatives that can be perceived in raising a second set of kids at our age, knowing these kids, I’d do it all again,” he said. “They are healthy, loving children. We cannot enjoy them and vice versa as grandparents and that’s too bad because they lose out on that, but at the same time, all these things we took for granted with our own kids, we get to do again.”
But “doing it again” is not without its own challenges.
“When I went out to buy my first pack of diapers, I almost fainted. Twenty dollars for diapers? What do you mean?” DeCarlo said. “There are baby monitors that now you can monitor them on video. I’m just in awe of all the gadgets. Even the medications have changed. When Ansley was teething, I went to the pharmacy and told them I needed paregoric. The pharmacist told me they’d stop making that years ago,” she said. “It’s just like I’m doing this for the first time.”
Grandparents who are raising their grandchildren can also face significant financial trials. DeCarlo said that there is a lack of information available for grandparents, and so many who call her are unaware of the financial benefits they are eligible to receive.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) will award $155 per child and $235 for two children per month to grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, even less than foster parents receive. Grandparents are also eligible to receive WIC (Women, Infants and Children) benefits and food stamps.
DeCarlo said that knowing what’s available is half the battle and that is a big reason why she created the grandparents support group.
“We’re not sitting here having a pity party. We want to be empowered with knowledge,” she said. “There is no reason that grandparents should have to lose the roof over their heads because they are trying to do the right thing.”
Perdue also hopes that through programs such as Project Healthy Grandparents, grandparents will gain confidence in their rights.
“They need to know they have a political voice, and once they do, use it to make a difference,” she said.
The group at Transfiguration meets every Tuesday from 7:15-8:15 p.m. There, the grandparents discuss their options and learn from each other. Often there is a guest speaker who provides information about legal or other issues faced by grandparents.
Joanne LeDonne, a grandparent who regularly attends the group meetings, is grateful for the support.
“It’s wonderful to walk into a room and know that everyone there understands,” she said. “It provides not only emotional support but also different solutions to our similar struggles, so that we’re all not having to reinvent the wheel.”
Recently the group met for a Christmas party at the church’s social hall. As the grandparents talked, the children ran around, laughing and playing, in between opportunities to sit on Santa’s lap.
The group continues to grow, with as many as 20 coming to meetings every week, DeCarlo said. Her own experience is also changing. Ansley’s father has now been drug-free for six months, and DeCarlo remains cautiously optimistic.
“I don’t set any expectations for him or for anyone else. I have to just wait and see how everything goes. With all the years I’ve been through this, I know all I can do is just pray.”
For information about the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group at Transfiguration, call Jeannie DeCarlo at (770) 919-9275. Baby-sitting is available with a three-day notice prior to the meeting by calling Lori MacDonald at (770) 977-1442, ext. 145. On Jan. 17, guest speaker Mark Brumbill will present the “Love and Logic” program, an opportunity to learn new behavioral modification skills.For more information about Project Healthy Grandparents, visit http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwalh.