Thanksgiving will be a big family gathering for Bridgett Munday, 58, and the two grandchildren she is raising: Kynnedy Johnson, 14, and Madisyn Washington, 6.
With about 20 other relatives, they will enjoy baked and fried turkey, brisket, sweet potato pie and all the fixings at the home of Munday’s mother. Munday is taking mashed potatoes and an apple pie and looking forward to bingo, card games and team competitions.
Munday, a Jackson County resident, is among 7 million Americans who are raising at least one grandchild — about 10 percent of the grandparent population nationwide.
In just two years, that number has increased from a U.S. Census Bureau count of 2.7 million in 2012.
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These grandparents share a concern that the children remain in the family rather than go to foster care. This depth of caring leads them to shore up their energy, dip into their savings or retirement funds, postpone travel and make room for a second family in their homes.
Currently about 10 percent of children younger than 18 are growing up in households headed by a grandparent. Only 3 percent of children lived in such households in 1970. By 1990, the figure had risen to 5 percent.
Munday said she accepted the responsibility of raising two granddaughters so that their mother could finish college.
Child-rearing at this stage of her life meant learning how to parent differently, she said. Munday and other residents of the Pemberton Park apartment community attend grandparent support classes right where they live at 5010 Cleveland Ave.
“Rather than spanking, we learn how to use ‘time out,’ to have conversations with the kids and to listen to them,” she said. “Every moment is a teaching moment — we need to ask why” when grandchildren want to do something that seems unwise to the grandparent.
The housing complex where Munday lives with her granddaughters opened in 2011 and has 36 apartments designed for so-called grandfamilies. Residents must be at least 55 years old, legal guardians of a grandchild and meet income restrictions for project-based housing.
“They thought they would be retired and going fishing,” said Candace Cheatem, facilitator for a support group sponsored by the Local Investment Commission that meets at Pemberton Park. “Now, they’re at PTA meetings.”
Weekends mean time to themselves for the residents. Grandchildren often spend Friday through Sunday with their own parents and return to Pemberton Park in time for school on Monday.
With a social worker on staff, grandparents enjoy a supportive environment and share a common bond. Earlier in the month, some 100 residents and their grandchildren came together for a potluck Thanksgiving dinner in the community room.
“We’ve all experienced about the same thing with our grandchildren,” said Rose Stigger, 62, on-site manager and a resident.
In October, Stigger, Munday and other residents attended a Grandfamilies Conference at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Liberty. The conference was co-sponsored by AARP, Clay County Senior Services, the Platte County Senior Fund and the University of Missouri Extension Council in Clay County.
At the conference, some 130 participants from Clay, Platte and Jackson counties could learn about economic, legal and lifestyle changes that grandparents face when they agree to raise grandchildren.
Jimmie James and his granddaughter, Patricia, were panelists.
James began raising Patricia in 1999 and later adopted her and her younger sister, Jasmine.
It all began with a knock on the door in the night by a social worker. James learned then that his daughter — their mother — had entered a drug treatment program and the grandchildren wanted to stay with him.
Now 72, James said he retired in 2000 to become a full-time parent to the girls. Jasmine, 17, was born addicted and was diagnosed with learning disabilities and visual and auditory impairments.
Sitting in the living room of his Kansas City, North, townhouse, James told the girls, “I can’t identify with your pain. But I know God put you in a place so you could realize goals and objectives you would not have had with your mom and dad.”
The girls know their biological parents and see their mother whenever she wants to spend time with them.
“She is still my daughter,” James said.
Laughter and honesty flow freely at the James household. The girls joke with each other. Jasmine is the self-described tomboy and Patricia, the diva.
“But I can be a lady,” Jasmine said.
“... Which is shocking,” Patricia replied.
To raise his granddaughters, James draws upon his education and his experience as the oldest of 11 children, including eight sisters.
He holds associate degrees from the Metropolitan Community College system in child growth and development and in criminal justice. At one time, he owned two day care centers in Kansas City and was licensed as a foster parent in 1990.
After James adopted Jasmine, he set up a learning center in a bedroom and began working with her to overcome the disabilities. By the time she was in the fourth grade, Jasmine was declared no longer learning disabled and taken off disability income.
He moved from an urban neighborhood to Clay County in 2002 so the girls could have “better education and social amenities,” and he could have a grocery store nearby.
Patricia, 18, graduated from Oak Park High School in May and takes classes at Metropolitan Community College-Maple Woods. Jasmine is a student at Oak Park with plans to graduate in 2016.
In the Kansas City area, more than 4,000 households are headed by grandparents raising grandchildren, said Diana Milne, human development specialist with University of Missouri Extension in Clay County.
“For one reason or another, the parents are not fit, able or willing to care for the child,” Milne said. “There may be abusive situations, and the grandparents fear for the grandchild’s safety.”
Drugs, alcohol, untreated mental illness, domestic violence and incarceration are among the most common reasons that parents become dysfunctional and abandon child-rearing responsibilities.
“Children are never taken from biological parents unless a problem is evident — the children are dirty, unkempt, bruised or sexually traumatized, for example,” said Lynn Barnett, family therapist and clinical director of the MidAmerica Family Treatment Center in Kansas City. “Then the first place social service agencies look to place the children is with a grandmother or a grandfather.”
While the grandparent may be the best solution for the child, “suddenly the grandparent’s nice, quiet retirement is disrupted,” Barnett said. “And they don’t understand what is going on with the child.”
Barnett treats families to help grandparents connect with grandchildren, become parents again and understand what it takes to help a child grow into a healthy adult.
Finances are an issue in most households. George and Jeri Hewitt in Kansas City, North, spent more than $30,000 in a contested adoption. They cashed in an IRA, maxed out a credit card and sold a car. They receive $136 a month from the state plus health coverage for their granddaughter, Adrianna.
Being adopted was her idea. “I hated my last name,” Adrianna said.
Hearing the last name given to Adrianna at birth would set off panic attacks, Jeri Hewitt explained. Being legally adopted has reassured the girl that “no one could come and get her and take her away.”
Adrianna came to live with the Hewitts in 2007 when she was 3 years old, weighed 22 pounds and couldn’t cry and wouldn’t talk. The Hewitts adopted her in 2012.
Adrianna is now a fifth-grader, standing 4 feet tall, weighing 62.2 pounds — and gaining. She sings in school and church choirs, takes karate lessons at night and makes A’s in math.
George Hewitt, 69, helps Adrianna with homework and reads with her when he comes home from work. Jeri Hewitt, 62, has become a stay-at-home mom.
To help Clay and Platte county grandparents, Clay County Senior Services and the Platte County Senior Fund provide funding for Northland Grandfamilies. Administered by University of Missouri Extension, the program includes two monthly support group meetings with a total participation of more than 100 households.
The monthly meetings are designed to provide grandparents a chance to share their struggles and successes with others who understand what they’re going through. The meetings also make available information about utility assistance and other programs that may help with living expenses, updates or changes in state legislation, local activities and other resources.
Raising grandchildren also alters retirement plans.
“Grandparents end up working longer, hoping their health holds out, lowering their standard of living and cutting back to needs-based spending rather than wants-based,” said Sandi Weaver, president of Financial Security Advisors in Prairie Village.
Weaver advises against co-signing for a loan or paying off debt incurred by adult children. A couple came to her in 2005 about their daughter’s $40,000 credit card balance. Although Weaver advised them to let the daughter file for bankruptcy, her father was morally opposed to that and ended up paying the daughter’s debt from IRA accounts in addition to raising the daughter’s two children.
Child support payments from natural parents are rare.
One Clay County couple became legal guardians in 2005 for their daughter’s three teenage children.
“For almost 10 years now, we’ve gotten no support from either parent,” the 71-year-old grandfather said. “The father hasn’t paid anything and is more than $70,000 behind in child support.”
They receive $292 a month in state assistance — the same amount for the last nine years.
Like other grandparents, Lois Fitzpatrick, 77, of Gladstone, made a decision out of love in 1991 to raise her daughter’s daughter, Ashlei Fitzpatrick, when the girl was 4 years old.
Soon after she and her husband became a grandfamily, Fitzpatrick founded and facilitated a Grandparents As Parents support group in the Northland. At that time, she thought the grandfamilies trend would level off. Instead, she has seen it grow.
Ashlei is now 27 years old, has moved out of her grandparents’ home, holds an associate degree and is considering law school.
The hardest part of growing up in a grandfamily, Ashlei Fitzpatrick said, “was not feeling normal — everybody else had a mom and dad, and I had grandparents.”
As an adult, she has discovered that several of her adult friends also were raised by grandparents, but it wasn’t that common when she was growing up.
The best part of growing up in a grandfamily was “the extra love” and the wisdom and experience her grandparents shared with her.
“My grandmother was a huge mentor in my life,” she said. “Here she was a grandma, and she was in college getting a bachelor’s degree.”
Fitzpatrick said she visits her grandparents about once a week, and her childhood friends drop in on them as well.
“She is happy, self-reliant and organizing Thanksgiving dinner for the family,” Lois Fitzpatrick said.
Munday, too, is proud of the granddaughters she is raising.
The older girl, Kynnedy, 14, attends the Ewing Marion Kauffman School, a college preparatory school, and holds a 3.75 GPA. Interpretation, critical thinking and problem-solving skills are emphasized.
“When we answer a question, we need to explain how we got that answer,” Kynnedy said.
Her future includes plans for college and a career in medicine, she said.
Reflective of Munday’s own philosophy about raising grandchildren are her words of encouragement to the granddaughter.
“I tell her, ‘You can do anything God puts for you to do,’” Munday said.
Help is available
THE NATIONAL KINSHIP ALLIANCE FOR CHILDREN
A worldwide network providing information on financial assistance and other resources.
Click on “Grandfamilies” in the left-hand column for information on housing, financial aid, personal stories and other information.
MISSOURI GRANDFAMILY COALITION
ParentLink is the host agency for the coalition.
8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday
For information on raising grandchildren, finding a support group and other help for grandfamilies.
NORTHLAND GRANDFAMILIES PROGRAM
University of Missouri Extension/Clay County Annex
1901 N.E. 48th St.
Kansas City, MO 64118
Grandparents meet from 10 to 11 a.m. on alternate Wednesdays at Pemberton Park, 5010 Cleveland Ave., Kansas City, MO 64130.
For information, call Candace Cheatem, deputy director of the Local Investment Commission, at 816-889-5055, ext. 1228.
For more information about the apartment community designed for grandfamilies, call Rose Stigger, on-site manager, at 816-921-7275.
Read more about grandparenting from the National Center for Fathering: