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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   September 2008

Generations Growing Together

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren helps Las Cruces-area families where parenting has skipped a generation.

By Jeff Berg

I was raised in part by my maternal grandmother, who stepped in to help after my parents divorced when I was 12. Her gentle and unassuming nature, combined with her "unofficial" license to take charge when necessary, changed my life dramatically, as my mom struggled to bring a livable income into our house during an age when divorce was still a social stigma.

Grandchildren gather at Grandparents Raising Grandchildren while their caregivers attend a class.

Gram's cooking skills (and love of using them) and admiration for baseball and Scrabble enhanced her stays at our tiny house in suburban Chicago. Those were perks as part of a package that also included a sense of stability, kindness, balance and tough love.

She was raised by "strangers" herself, as she was "given away" to neighbors (at a time when such things were unofficially allowed) because her birth parents could not afford to raise her. But even with that history, an alcoholic husband who abandoned his family many times during the Depression, and the job of raising four children mostly by herself, she was able to maintain her optimism and loving heart.

So, it's with great interest that I pay a visit to a group that might have been able to help Gram during those years.

It is the first workday after the successful fundraising garage sale held by Las Cruces' Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (GRG). Acting GRG director Al Vickers, a volunteer, and his lightly paid staff are still a bit weary after organizing and setting up the sale, which had to deal with some of the heaviest rains of the summer. But they raised $2,000, enough to keep this newly reorganized and unique organization going for a couple of more weeks. They run through the list of donors who helped make it happen, including Peace Lutheran Church, Kohl's, Albertson's and members of the GRG's own board of directors.

Vickers and his crew will barely have time to catch their breath before this month's GRG eighth annual celebration of Grandparents Day, Sept. 6, at Las Cruces' Young Park from noon to 4 p.m.

Like many other non-profit groups in the area, GRG relies mostly on donations to keep afloat. And during these dreadful economic times, donations are becoming pinched as normally good-hearted folks need what was once disposable income to help keep their own households going.

Vickers is a retired businessman, with 50 years of experience. He's also the local chapter chairman of SCORE, a nationwide group of retired businesspeople who now use their expertise to help non-profits and other organizations that often don't have the necessary business skills to head down a road with a positive bottom line.

"We (SCORE) were contacted by the GRG accountant last July (2007) because they wanted help writing grants," Vicker recalls. "Someone from SCORE came in and looked around and found that there were no longer any coherent bylaws, and the then-executive director was riding roughshod over the staff. Nor was there a functioning board of directors. We stepped in and started making changes, revised the bylaws, and I stepped in as the volunteer executive director."

This "new" job was to have been a temporary thing for Vickers, himself the grandfather of seven, but because of the budget restrictions, he has been again working full-time for a full year. It is work he enjoys, and is certainly good at, but at some point he will need to find the means to have a paid staffer take over the position.

Vickers says that just in Dona Ana County, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren could be helping 3,000 — yes, three thousand — families where grandparents are raising grandchildren. This might even be a low figure, but would include such folks as Emma Padilla, one of Vickers' office staff, who raised her 10 children and two grandchildren, and is now raising one great-grandchild.

Nationwide, as of 2005, the US Census Bureau estimates that 5.7 million grandparents are raising grandchildren, 64 percent of them girls. Racial breakdown is a bit hard to decipher, because of Hispanic/Latino being counted as "white," but then when that figure is broken down, it comes to 22 percent Hispanic, 21 percent black and 47 percent white, with the rest being made up of American Indian, Asian and 10 percent claiming "some other race."

For most of us, stereotypes kick in and we assume that children who are being raised by grandparents are victims of divorce, poverty, chemicals and crime or a combination of such things. In fact, however, 2005 US Census estimates indicate that 84 percent of kids being raised by grandparents were at or above the poverty level the previous 12 months.

In New Mexico, according to a coalition of the AARP Foundation and five children's advocacy groups, as of April of this year, 8.1 percent of all children in the state were being raised by grandparents, a total of 41,085 kids. Another 2.1 percent live in households headed by another non-parental relative. Of those households where grandparents are raising children, 53 percent are Hispanic, 23 percent Anglo, 20 percent American Indian or Alaska Native, and 2 percent African American. In Dona Ana County, Vickers says that the majority of families, well over 50 percent, who are seeking help are of Hispanic background.

Studies have shown that older Hispanic females, who are the head of household in most of these grandparent-led families, normally do not have a great deal of education. This limits their earning potential, especially for those whose status in the US is unofficial. If something should happen to the parents of a child, the grandmother (most often a single female) becomes the unofficial parent, and makes strong efforts to hold the family together while weathering the crisis. Such crises can come from incarceration, substance abuse, neglect and abandonment. But other less commonly thought of issues, such as illness and a parent or parents being in the military, can also be factors.

"Grandparents fill the gap during a trauma for a child and they do an excellent job," Vickers says. "Their job becomes to preserve and protect."

That's where Grandparents Raising Grandchildren comes in, to lend a hand. Says Vickers, "We provide resources that allow the grandparents to obtain clothing, school supplies, food, medical care and even Christmas gifts for anyone who comes to us. There are no questions asked."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has not approached GRG at any time, he adds. "We don't know or care what anyone's 'status' is."

GRG offers access to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for the grandparents. And the group has evolved to where it now provides expertise to share with families via seminars and workshops, as well as support meetings, which are held monthly. The old adage of "give a man a fish/teach him to fish" comes into play now.

"We are aware that in order for the grandchildren to succeed, the grandparents must succeed," Vicker says.

Nationwide, there are a number of groups similar to GRG; the one in Las Cruces was begun in 1998 by Nina Mervin. The concept everywhere is simple and the same: to make information and resources available to help grandparents who are raising grandchildren.

"Seventy-five percent of our funding comes from individuals now, and we currently do not have any government grants," Vickers says.

Another program that Vickers and his staff are working on is to recruit more volunteer caseworkers. "We used to have them when we had more funding, and it is something that we need locally," he says. "I would also plan to have people that would go to Hatch and Anthony, too."

Yolanda Borunda is currently the GRG Program Manager, a job that evolved from her own visits to the office as a client some years ago.

She recalls, "I was raising two grandchildren (now ages 19 and 17) and I came in to see what resources were available to me. After a while, Nina (Mervin) asked me to volunteer, and then later I became a paid employee."

Borunda shares the story of how she ended up raising two of her five grandchildren: "My daughter was young and left home with her boyfriend, and they got into drugs. I was taking care of them (the grandkids), but she would come back and take them away whenever she wanted to be a mom again. They were two (years old) and eight months at the time, and it became an ongoing thing."

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