Grandparents design support group for raising grandkids

Cheryl Baker, 51, of Warren, reads to her granddaughters, from left, Hailey Fleegle, 8, Kennleigh Fleegle, 6, and Lilli Fleegle, 9, at Packard Park in Warren. Baker is raising her granddaughters after her own daughter, a heroin addict, moved out of state. Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple

WARREN — In April 2017, Sharon Grover’s daughter, a registered nurse who worked at the Cleveland Clinic and an opioid addict, died of a fentanyl overdose. Now Grover and her husband, Steve, are raising their three grandchildren, ages 2, 4 and 6.

Cheryl Baker of Warren said her stepdaughter is a heroin addict who moved out of state and has no contact with her children. Baker is raising them, ages 5, 8 and 9.

Bonnie Wilson of Howland said her daughter was addicted to heroin for 20 years. She’s now incarcerated in Montana. Wilson and her husband, Mike, have adopted their 13-year-old grandson.

“We just realized this addiction was such a part of her life and she had tried and tried so many times to break this addiction,” Bonnie Wilson said. They all agreed it was in the boy’s best interest for him to be adopted by his grandparents, she said.

Grover, Baker and Wilson are among the founding members of a grassroots support group called Grand Addition. It’s an organization run by and for grandparents who are raising grandchildren because of the birth parents’ addictions or death.

“We are not psychologists, or attorneys and will give NO legal advice,” a group description on Facebook states. “We simply tell our stories, offer support in a nonjudgmental way. We are a peer-to-peer group.”

“We need to hear from a grandma who’s been through it,” Grover said.

“I talk to friends on Facebook and they don’t know what I’m going through. They can’t relate,” Beth “Ryan” of McDonald, who has joint custody of her grandson, said. “They go on cruises. We go to soccer games.”

“We sometimes feel like we’re the forgotten ones,” Baker said. “The phone no longer rings and the door no longer opens.”

Not that they resent the job, the grandmas said. “It’s our choice to do this,” Grover said. They just want a better understanding of how. And sometimes, it’s nice to be assured that you’re not alone, they said.

Wilson said support groups are starting, “but it’s twice a month. We need to be able to talk anytime things come up, and to hear from people who are in it,” she said. “Unless you are walking in our shoes, you don’t know.”

So far, the group mostly exists on the open Grand Addition Community page on Facebook and on the closed group Facebook page GRAND Addition! The closed group is a place where grandparents can vent, share stories, offer tips on what they’ve discovered and ask about resources, Grover said.

“Nobody tells you how to get these things when they drop the kids off,” Baker said. So they walk each other through the process.

Lisa Solley, director of communications for Area Agency on Aging 11 Inc., said, “Many grandparents have taken on the responsibility out of love and find themselves facing more obstacles than they anticipated. The financial strains are considerable and while AAA11 can provide assistance with signing up for utility and other assistance programs, there is no solid, long-term answer for grandparents to receive financial assistance.

“A majority of this growing population already are making hard decisions between food and medicine and medical care,” Solley said. “Often, they earn just enough to not qualify for Medicaid benefits, but not enough to get by with a healthy quality of life. And many are still working,” she said.

While studies have shown kinship care generally is a better alternative than foster care, grandparents sometimes assume the role without court authority, which limits financial assistance and legal authority to raise their grandchildren, Solley said. Now they face issues of affordable child care, increased household budgets for food and utilities, and legal expenses to possibly gain legal custody of their grandchildren.

“I spent $12,000 just going back and forth for custody,” Grover said.

Solley said, “It can become a silent burden that most grandparents will assume out of love, but one that can have ill effects on their health and quality of life.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act that he introduced in light of the opioid epidemic passed both the House and Senate and awaits President Donald Trump’s signature.

“One hundred thousand (grandparents) in Ohio are the primary caretaker of the grandchildren,” Brown said. “Obviously not all because of opioid addiction, but a big part of that.”

The bill would establish a federal task force to help grandparents coordinate and share resources, he said.

Also on Wednesday, Grand Addition agreed to become a subsidiary of Solace of the Valley, a Warren-based nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting the stigma of addiction. Solace says it fights the war on drug addiction by providing support to affected individuals and families and advocating for policy changes.

Grover said becoming part of a nonprofit group allows Grand Addition to apply for grants and accept donations to pay for things like children’s beds and outings for the grandchildren.

“Our goals with this committee is the kids are first, and the caregivers are not forgotten,” Grover said. “We need to get a club for these kids so that they make friends and have something that’s not drugs.”

Baker said she started a pen-pal program for grandkids in the situation. “They love it,” she said.

The group also wants to erase stigmas.

“People need to understand that it doesn’t matter who you are, this can affect you,” said Baker, who works on the line at the General Motors Assembly Plant in Lordstown.

“It doesn’t see any boundaries,” said Grover, who with her husband owns the thriving Ridgeview Farms in rural Mesopotamia, where they are a church-going family.

Wilson is the director of Someplace Safe domestic violence shelter, and her husband, Mike, is the executive director of SCOPE senior centers in Trumbull County. They’ve been part of several community service organizations over the years.

The group intends to build its support group of grandmas and grandpas and expand beyond the borders of Trumbull County.

“It’s a big job, but there’s a void,” Grover said.

“I think we’re going in the right direction. I think we’re on to something here,” Baker said.

“We really have a passion for the collateral damage — the children — in Trumbull County,” Grover said. “They need love. These kids need love.”

“These kids have been through hell and back,” Baker said. “They’ve gone through things that if we as grownups had to, we’d be sitting in a corner throwing up. They need some happy memories.

“We have to break the cycle somehow.”

bcole@tribtoday.com

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Anyone who would like to donate to Grand Addition may write Grand Addition in the memo line of a check and send it to Solace of the Valley, PO Box 563, Cortland 44410.

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