They meet twice a month in a room at the Phyllis Wheatley Community Library in Corn Hill—10, 15 or 20 women, most of a certain age.
The group’s official name is Rochester Advocates for Children. Member Joann Bennett, an ebullient 60ish woman who is raising her 4-year-old grandson on her own, calls it the Grandma Group.
Like Bennett, the group’s other members are grandmothers. And like Bennett, they are now or have been primary caregivers for their own grandchildren. Aunts, men, even family friends with custody of children whose parents are out of the picture would be welcome. It’s just that so far none have showed up, says Gladys Hawkins, the group’s founder and guiding spirit.
Nationally, the number of grandparents raising grandchildren has risen steadily for decades. In 2005, 2.5 million children were living with grandparents who were responsible for their care. By 2015, that number had risen to 2.9 million, a Pew Charitable Trust report states.
In the city of Rochester, the number of grandparents responsible for their own grandchildren under 18 years old has declined, from 2,712 in 2010 to 2,173 in 2017, census data show. In part, this may reflect the decrease in the city’s population overall, from 210,565 in 2010 to 206,284 in the July 2018 estimate. During the 2010-17 period, however, the number of grandparents responsible for their own under-18 grandchildren rose to 6,476 from 6,354.
While the Grandma Group’s focus is primarily on the children its members are caring for, “it’s hard on the grandmothers too,” Hawkins says. Meetings, which members’ grandchildren typically do not attend, serve as much to support members themselves as they do to foster advocacy for their charges.
Meetings start and end with a prayer. Most often, Mildred Eady leads.
Eady is a small woman in a colorful dress and a hat. Earrings in the shape of a cross dangle from each ear. Eighty years old, she is the daughter of sharecroppers who worked the fields on a Southern plantation where their parents were once enslaved. When her parents arranged to have her learn to read and write, “the white man didn’t like it,” says Eady, recalling the plantation owner’s pique.
When Eady prays, she chants in the cadence of the black church, her voice rising and falling, her call inviting a response from the group, which obliges. All but one are African-American women. They arrange themselves in folding chairs around long rectangular tables set in a square. Some are sitting, some standing. They clasp hands. Eady’s eyes are closed. She sways slightly and nods her head as she intones each improvised stanza.
“O’ God,” she begins, “keep us safe in our homes and help us to keep the children safe.” She follows with fervent pleas for boons and blessings as the spirit strikes her.
“Yes, Father,” Rosena Addison calls out.
At a meeting in June a newcomer named Charlene, a woman in her 50s with bright orange streaks in her braided hair, tearfully told the group about her travails caring for an infant grandchild while her chronically ill husband pulled deeper into himself and withdrew from her. Weeping, she said she felt like she was at her wits’ end.
Members, many of whom get by on modest fixed incomes, struggle financially and psychologically, Hawkins says. Foster parents who are unrelated to their charges get per-child stipends from child welfare agencies. Courts favor custodial placements with relatives over foster care. But no such grants are available to grandparents. More children removed by an agency or court or otherwise deprived of parental care go into the foster care system than to relatives or family friends. In either type of placement, parents can be in and out of the picture.
Reasons why the Rochester Advocates for Children grandmothers are caring for their charges vary. Some have lost their children to the streets. Some of their children have died. Some of their children are single parents in the military.
The granddaughter Addison is caring for was fathered by Addison’s son. Neither Addison’s son nor the child’s mother are able to care for their child. The child asks Addison why her mother gave her up, why her mother sometimes takes out her other children and leaves her behind.
“I really can’t explain,” Addison says. The child’s mother tells her daughter, “You’re in the best place.”
The child still asks.
Going it alone
Nationally, 21 percent of grandparents caring for grandchildren live below the poverty line. Many grandparents face a host of emotional and financial challenges in their renewed parenting role. There are often few state or local resources to draw on for help, a 2016 Pew Charitable Trust Stateline report states.
Rochester Advocates for Children gets no government or charitable foundation support. It is an infant organization with few resources, fragile but more of a skin-of-its-teeth than fly-by-night effort. What benefits it gathers come from donations it is able to raise on its own.
Hawkins is planning a picnic for members and their young charges. She had hoped to organize a garage sale to help finance the group’s modest efforts, but it didn’t come together. The grandmothers are old; they don’t have the energy to put one together, she explains.
Hawkins has ambitions. She hopes to register the group as a 501(c)(3) non-profit and pull in tax-deductible donations.
Hawkins explored getting pro bono legal help to apply for 501(c)(3) status through the Volunteer Legal Services Project, a Rochester nonprofit that connects clients with local law firms willing to provide free legal help. It didn’t work out.
“They wanted me to do a business plan,” Hawkins says. “I wasn’t ready to put one together.”
Hawkins’ daughter, who runs a nonprofit in Las Vegas that aids homeless men, helped her put together an application to the Internal Revenue Service to register Rochester Advocates for Children under the daughter’s 501(c)(3) umbrella.
“I hope to hear from the IRS in 30 days,” Hawkins to told members at an early August meeting.
Right now, funding is catch as catch can. One of Hawkins’ sons, who runs a local business, supplies food for meetings—potato chips, rolls, assorted cold cuts, plus condiments and trimmings, and bottled water. Jose Rosenbaum, a former pastor of Hawkins’ church, who runs a cleaning service, also helps financially. But Hawkins admits that a lot of the group’s modest expenses are covered out of her pocket.
“I don’t mind putting my own money into it,” she says. “I’ve been very blessed. A lot of these women have it a lot harder than I do.”
Hawkins organized Rochester Advocates for Children earlier this year not long after Skip Generations folded.
At its height, Skip Generations provided a host of support services, recalls Linda James, who as Hillside program coordinator oversaw that effort. She says Skip Generations began in 1989 as a grassroots effort organized by a woman named Shirley Wilmot.
After a 27-year run, Hillside discontinued its support of Skip Generations at the end of 2018. Hillside spokesman Erich VanDussen says he is pleased that the group had reestablished itself in a new incarnation. Hillside dissolved the group because money ran out, he says. But it wasn’t that Hillside ran short of cash. Members’ grandchildren grew up and left their grandparents’ care, which left too few active caregivers to meet Monroe County Office of the Aging funding guidelines.
A sprightly 77-year-old, Clara Broadnax joined Skip Generations in 1990 and raised four grandchildren, all of whom are on their own now.
“My baby girl was out on the street,” says Broadnax, recalling how it began. “It was on my 49th birthday. I went to my daughter’s house to see her on my birthday. She’d been missing for three days.
“She left a 6-week-old baby for other people to look after. I picked up my grandson and took him home. My grandson will be 29 in September. He’s a Marine.”
Hawkins moved to the Rochester area from Detroit four years ago. In Michigan, she had worked for a regional bank, counseling homeowners whose mortgage loans were shaky. When she retired in 2006, she had been caring for her grandson, now 15, for a decade. A daughter had asked her to take of her grandson while she was relocating.
“I guess she’s still relocating,” Hawkins says.
She has three sons living in the Rochester area, so Hawkins moved here in 2015 and joined Skip Generations in 2016.
When Skip Generations folded, Hawkins at first thought she would just let it go. Seeing herself as less stressed than other members, she thought she could get by fine without the group. But then, “I prayed and prayed on it,” and the answer that came back was that she needed to step in, try to recreate as much as she could of what the women of Skip Generations once had.
At its peak, James recalls, Skip Generations provided a bevy of services including case management with home visits and some transportation. It provided counseling services through the University of Rochester and even organized lobbying trips for members to advocate for benefits to elected officials. In addition to county funding, it had grants from the Brookdale Foundation Group, a New Jersey-based nonprofit with a mission “to enhance the quality of life of America’s elderly.” Brookdale only supports nonprofits that have 501(c)(3) status.
Wilmot, who died in 1997, held the first Skip Generations meetings in the basement of her home. Later, under Hillside’s sponsorship, it grew into a substantial organization. Eady attended its meetings for 27 years.
As Rochester Advocates for Children strives now to do, Skip Generations served multiple purposes, providing a sort of group therapy for its sometimes stressed members but also sponsoring activities for its charges, counseling including home visits and even some political advocacy.
Eady joined Skip Generations 27 years ago when she first took in grandchildren.
“My daughter was killed,” she explains. “She left me with two kids, a boy and a girl. The girl was four and the boy was two. I raised them. There was 10 I raised altogether. I’m taking care of two now.”
Eady says her daughter was murdered. She believes she was stabbed 13 or 14 times by a man named James Emmett. It was during the 1980s. Her daughter was pregnant when she was killed, Eady says. Emmett was never convicted of her daughter’s murder but he is serving time for another woman’s murder.
Eady had seven children. A son died of lung cancer at 55. She separated from her husband years ago. He was abusive, she says. So was a man she later had a relationship with. After that, she gave up on men. She is currently caring for a 5-year-old and a 17 year old.
Addison has taken care of 22 grandchildren.
Bennett is raising a 4-year-old grandson who has been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum. He can be “a handful,” Bennett says. She took him in after her daughter died of a heart infection.
A question of survival
Rochester Advocates for Children has been able to duplicate some of the services Skip Generations offered. How much it will be able to recreate remains to be seen.
Hawkins tirelessly scouts local nonprofits to line up speakers for the group’s twice-monthly meetings.
In June, a woman from Lifespan, the local nonprofit focused on services for the elderly, spoke to the group on how to recognize and avoid phone scams and other frauds targeting seniors. In July, a speaker came from a Buffalo Girl Scout organization. One of Hawkins’ goals is to organize Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops for members’ charges.
In early August, Kathy Cummins, director of volunteers and community relations for the Center for Youth Services, presented.
“I spoke to this group a few months ago and I was so impressed, I asked to come back,” Cummins told members.
A Rochester nonprofit, CYS provides a panoply of services: emergency day care, tutoring and job training for teens, support for homeless and runaway teens, and housing for homeless youth among them. It is planning a shelter for LGBTQ youth and provides in-school services in area public and charter schools.
“I’d like to be able to have our members go into schools, set up a table and let other people who are taking care of children they’re not parents to that we’re here,” Hawkins tells Cummins.
CYS has services in 45 schools and can help with that, Cummins says. She promises to send information.
James, who at times has been serving as an informal adviser to Hawkins, sees the group’s efforts as laudable and needed but believes that it will need to line up support like Skip Generations had from Hillside if it is to grow and survive.
Hawkins does not agree. She says she is not eager to go back under the sponsorship of Hillside or to any other organization.
“We’re faith-based,” she explains.
If the group were to come under a nonprofit’s control or be tied into government funding, prayer at meetings might have to be scratched, she fears. And other restrictions might be placed on the group. Members like Broadnax could be excluded.
Somehow, Hawkins believes, it will work out.
“I’m optimistic,” she says.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon’s senior writer.