by Libby James
Stories pour out as I sit across the table from two members of the Grand Family Coalition. They are among the 3,000 people in Larimer County who are currently parenting grandchildren, and they consider themselves the lucky ones. As we chat in an out-of-the-way meeting room at Mountain View Presbyterian Church in Loveland, they tell me why.
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Grandparents Bev and Debbie give enormous credit to their experience with the Grand Family Coalition for making it possible for them to cope with raising grandchildren because their birth parents, for one reason or another, cannot. Bev is raising a great-granddaughter, now 14 and Debbie has raised a grandson, now 22 and these days provides a home for granddaughters, ages 18 and 15. It is obvious that these women have become close friends, committed to being there for each other.
“Who else is going to do it?” Debbie said when asked why she took her eight-year-old grandson from foster care and adopted him, knowing that he had special needs. It was at a time in her life when she’d recently remarried and was looking forward to beginning a new chapter. The road was rough. The Coalition provided her with support and the opportunity to talk with people who were walking in her shoes. She didn’t hesitate when years later she welcomed eight and five-year-old granddaughters into her home.
Debbie feels blessed. “The girls have been a godsend to me and my husband,” she says. “They understand and appreciate what we have done for them. They have taken my focus off my old age.” Their older granddaughter is headed for college next year. “We have the privilege of watching these girls grow and blossom,” Debbie says.
It is hard to top Bev’s story. An only child of a 16-year-old mother, Bev was raised by a grandmother, married at 16 and by 19 was a widowed mother of two. She remarried, had four more children and then found herself single again. Forty-seven years ago she married Bud, divorced father of two, and the family joined him at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. Today Bev has 20 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren. She and Bud have adopted and are raising the granddaughter of Bev’s youngest son. From a three-year-old child who could not pronounce her own name, Bev’s great-granddaughter has grown into a chatty teen. “After three years of private speech therapy she has never stopped talking,” Bev says. “She has no off button. Sometimes I tell her she needs to rest her lips.” Bev’s infectious sense of humor makes her dear to the members of the Coalition.
Gail Engel, executive director of the Grand Family Coalition, has a story no less riveting. When she began caring for her young grandson whose mother was unable to bond with him, she didn’t know where to turn. So she became an activist, searching everywhere for answers. She became involved with the Namaqua Center and the Larimer County Alliance for Grand Families, a group that she says held her together as she fought to understand and serve the needs of her grandson who is now 12.
She and her husband were looking forward to retirement when they took on the late-in-life parenting role, one which Engel says can ruin a marriage and be detrimental to other children in the family. She took a 21-week course in family leadership training and in 2015 launched Grand Family Coalition to provide connection and support for grand families. The group welcomes any family members other than birth parents who are caring for children.
In 2017 Engel was featured as a Channel 7 Everyday Hero for her work. She sits on state and national boards that address these issues. The coalition now has 3,000 members in Larimer County and on January 1, 2019, became the recipient of a grant from the Colorado Next50 Initiative geared to kinship care, that will enable the coalition to expand their services. An outreach project will focus on including Spanish speakers by holding bilingual meetings. They will develop Peer to Peer programs, address transportation issues and offer kinship navigator programs. Engel was surprised to learn that half the students in Putnam Elementary School in Fort Collins are not living with their parents, a fact that spurred her on to initiating bilingual coalition groups.
As Engel advocates for reaching more grand families, she says, “We need to raise brave, courageous children. Kids who have had a bad start need all the help they can get.”
And so do those who are raising them. “Our camaraderie is our sanity,” Engel says.