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Grandfamilies House - 2002-03-24

A million and a half children in the United States were being raised by their grandparents last year… and the number of grandparent-headed households is growing. Among the many challenges senior citizens face when raising their grandchildren, is housing. But Toni Randolph takes us to a housing development in Boston designed with "grandfamilies" in mind.

Grandfamilies House is just what its name suggests. The only tenants who live here are grandparents raising grandchildren. It's the first development of its kind in the nation. Twenty-six grandfamilies live in a former nursing home that was renovated to accommodate the very young and the very old.

Among the residents, are 63-year-old Beatrice Allen and her 4 great-granddaughters, who range in age from 4 to 14. "It's a challenge because you done raised you kids, I have raised my children," she says. "I helped raise my grandchildren and now I'm raising my great-grands. That's a god blessing. I'm young enough to be able to raise them. I'm glad to be able to raise them."

Miz Allen has been raising her great-granddaughters for more than 6 years. At first she took them into her 2-bedroom townhouse. But that got too crowded. So when Grandfamilies House opened 4 years ago, Miz Allen jumped at the chance to move into one of its 3-bedroom apartments. She says although the "Grandfamilies" setting is new, parenting remains the same. "If you're a mother, you're a mother. It's no different. The only thing different with grandchildren is you let them get away with a little more than you would your own kids," she says. "You can't run and catch them all the time. You tell them go ahead on."

Beatrice Allen's great-granddaughters are among nearly 50 children at Grandfamilies House and about 10,000 youngsters in Massachusetts being raised by their grandparents. The reasons for the non-traditional family structure vary. Miz Allen wouldn't go into detail except to say her granddaughter took the wrong road so she took custody of her great-grandkids to keep them out of foster care. Other children may be living with their grandparents because their parents are sick, dead, addicted to drugs, jailed, just plain irresponsible or otherwise absent.

But according to the Resident Services Coordinator at Grandfamilies House, Jerry Meyers, all of the families here have one thing in common. "The one thing I've found is that they love their family. They're dealing with different types of grief and loss and guilt. All this is built up in them and they still have to raise this child," he says. "Some can barely get around to deal with some of these children and they do it, out of their hearts because they're not getting paid to do this. They're doing this just from their heart."

The rent for the 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom apartments at Grandfamilies House is subsidized by the state and federal governments. And children -- rather grandchildren --are not just welcome, but required. The project is recognized as a national model of inter-generational housing and there's a waiting list to get in. Grandfamilies House offers more than just a place to live. There are programs to accommodate both seniors and children, including workshops on elder services and luncheons for the seniors, and even on-site day-care.

"It was a blessing because you just move in, you're looking for day-care and day-care is downstairs. How lucky can you get," says 72-year old Ann Stokes, who considers herself a "pioneer" of Grandfamilies House. She and her granddaughter, Kadeisha, were among its first tenants when the house opened in 1998. Kadeisha was 3 at the time. Now, at age 7, she participates in the after-school program at the House.

Ms. Stokes sees that as another blessing, because teaching methods have changed and she says she and some of the other grandparents aren't always able to help with homework. "Now they have computers. We didn't have that. I had a typewriter. I was going to school and I had a typewriter. And later on as I worked we had word processors. So you can see how things have changed and keeping up with the changes," she says. "It's kind of hard when you're over 65, I'll tell you that. Very difficult, but you do the best you can."

There is a real sense of community at Grandfamilies House. In the lobby, people greet each other warmly when they enter the building or step on and off the elevators. But life here isn't always easy. At least one grandparent has died since the House opened. Some of the children have entered their teen-age years, when they're often harder to control. The House is trying to adapt. Recently House Manager Jerry Meyers set up a teen council for children over age 12. Now teens like 14-year-old Andre Woodbury have a voice and more of a sense of belonging. He and his 16-year-old brother have lived at Grandfamilies for nearly 4 years.

Before that, when he lived with his mother and other siblings in a nearby neighborhood, he says he was bored. "We didn't have any after school programs to go to. We just stayed at home and did whatever, stayed in our rooms or played on video games. But here I have a lot of opportunities," he says. "I like it better here with my grandmother where I get more responsibility and that's what I like about it."

Andre is like a grandson to many of the grandparents in the house. He delivers food when they don't feel like cooking and checks on them when they're feeling sick. Sometimes he baby-sits when grandmothers are talking to reporters.

Ann Stokes says that while Grandfamilies House is fairly new, what goes on here is not, especially for the African-American community. "We've been doing this ever since slavery," she says. "I do know that. It's nothing different for us to take our children. So why should it be different because it's 2002? We're still going to make it."

She says Grandfamilies House is an experiment, a work in progress, but she adds that it's already a community that young and old are working to make successful.