Fern Brashear says that everyone who knows her knows her story.
One major part of that story: at 81, she’s one of approximately 4,000 older adults raising grandchildren in the Kansas City area.
She’s already raised two grandchildren, one of whom is now a schoolteacher. Currently, two of her grandsons live with her: Patrick and Stephen, along with Stephen’s wife Camie and their 7-month-old son.
“His name is Stephen Jackson, but we call him Jackson since his daddy’s name is also Stephen,” says Brashear. “He’s such a doll.”
Brashear has found a community of peers and mentors in The Northland Grandfamilies Program, a partnership between Clay County Senior Services, the Platte County Senior Fund and the University of Missouri Extension Center in Clay County.
“Fern illustrates the challenges the grandfamilies face and the many sacrifices they make for their families,” says Program Associate Christine Brunkow.
The program, in existence since 2012, is designed to assist grandparents and other relatives raising children with issues that include legal concerns, financial burdens, and emotional and physical stress. There are currently more than 220 active clients—that number does not include the grandchildren, nieces or nephews that those in the program are raising.
“What I really like is that it’s someplace for me to go to talk to people other than family about what we’re going through,” says Brashear. “We all help each other. We talk and give each other ideas. Everyone is friendly, everyone is helpful, and that’s what we all need so we can learn to cope.”
Clients in the program range in age from mid-thirties to mid-eighties. Each is caring for grandchildren or other relatives because the parents of the children are experiencing issues that might include substance abuse, incarceration, or mental illness. In Missouri, there are more than 125,000 children under the age of 18 living with grandparents or other relatives.
“Often a situation comes about suddenly when a parent can no longer care for a child or is unwilling to assume parental responsibilities,” says Brunkow. “The grandparents in the program form a strong bond with one another and are very willing to assist and support new members, encourage each other and share resources. The strength of the program is the support given and received at the meetings. The grandparents are very caring and compassionate individuals whose first priority are their grandchildren.”
The program offers case management, including referrals to agencies such as Samuel Rodgers Health Center, Love, Inc., In As Much Ministries and the Clay County Clothes Closet.
“Each month I refer approximately 25 individuals to agencies in the community. Resources are provided on clothing, utility assistance, food pantries, counseling, medical services and transportation,” says Brunkow.
There are two support groups: a day program on the second Wednesday of each month at North Cross United Methodist Church and an evening program on the fourth Wednesday of each month at Platte Woods United Methodist Church. Free childcare is offered at the evening program and the meetings are free and open to any grandparent, aunt or uncle raising children who are 18 and younger.
Those who attend the meetings share their stories and receive support from others in similar circumstances. There are also guest speakers at each meeting; topics range from legal issues like custody, guardianship and adoption to identity theft, risky behaviors of teens and youth, brain health, and nutrition and fitness.
Brashear calls the family she’s cultivated through the program “a private community” and says she’s met both people who understand what she’s going through and people who can help her navigate through specific issues.
“They’re good people who listen, and they’re smart people who give good advice,” she says.
The program also offers an annual conference, which will be held on October 14th at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Liberty. The free event benefits grandparents, aunts and uncles raising relatives or family members 18 and younger and is open to professionals in the community, including clergy, teachers, counselors and other school personnel, and staff from social service and community agencies. Speakers and agencies from the metro area will share resources and information to help those who find themselves in the role of caregiver.
To learn more about the program, meeting locations, and the conference, please call the University of Missouri Extension at 816.407.3490.