When Grandma Becomes Mom

Mar 31, 2021

You never realize how important something as simple as a stove is until you go without one. For years. While raising an autistic child. Who happens to be your grandson.

That’s the reality Hannah* was dealing with when she came in contact with GORRC, Grandparents and Older Relatives Raising Children, a new program the City of Chicago has contracted The Salvation Army to run. The program offers grandparents and relatives 55 and older who are raising children support groups, individual and family counseling, and financial assistance with tangible needs. Like a stove.

Julie Stalle, program director for GORRC, told Hannah last December, “We’re going to get you a stove for Christmas.” She wanted the grandmother – who had been raising Trey, her 14-year-old grandson, since he was 2 – to be able to cook a holiday meal. Julie worked with a local appliance store, where the owner was so excited about this program he sent his workers to deliver the used stove the next day.

“She was so excited,” Julie said about Hannah’s reaction. “She cooked a hot breakfast for her grandson the next morning. It really touched me.”

A Rising Trend

Hannah’s situation is not unusual. Neither of Trey’s parents – including Hannah’s son, Trey’s dad – are in the picture. Trey’s mother had a relative leave him at Hannah’s door, deeming her the best person to raise the boy. She’s been doing her best, despite her age and financial struggles, to provide him a loving home ever since.

The City of Chicago has been supporting child-rearing relatives like Hannah for several years in various iterations of this program. Often the parents aren’t able to raise the children due to difficult circumstances such as death, incarceration, substance use disorder, mental health issues, or situations of neglect, abuse, or abandonment. In many cases, the family has already experienced trauma and both the children and those raising them need some extra support.

“The Salvation Army has had a hand in the work for years,” Julie said. In October of 2020, the City asked the Army to take over the program. Julie and her team hit the ground running.

They offer weekly support groups, over the phone due to COVID-19 safety concerns. “The ones who show up love that phone call,” Julie said. They start by discussing a monthly theme, such as goal setting or relationships. Julie, who has 17 grandkids of her own, is one of the group’s biggest cheerleaders. “I’m always telling them, ‘You can do this. It won’t be simple, but you can do this.’” When deeper needs become apparent, they refer clients to other Salvation Army programs. Still, Julie said some of her favorite times are when the members of this unique group encourage each other.

Financial Challenges

Julie also notes that about 90 percent of GORRC’s clients live in poverty. “These are people in their fifties, sixties, seventies,” she said. “The challenges of poverty are hard enough, and now they’re raising young children.” In their support groups and counseling sessions, she encourages these clients not to lose their own sense of identity, purpose, or worth in the midst of all the demands of parenting.

When the clients’ financial challenges lead to specific unmet needs related to the wellbeing of the children, GORRC steps in to provide funding for items such as a bed, school uniform, or an iPad for students learning remotely. The program has also funded safe stairs leading to a grandparent’s home, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and money for an after-school program.  

For Samantha, the need was a new apartment. The 64-year-old grandmother, doing her best to stay clean after years of struggling with substance use disorder, was suddenly raising her 8-year-old grandson and needed a safe place to raise him. GORRC helped them get into federally supported housing.

Danielle, a 55-year-old who was going back to school to become a drug counselor, suddenly found herself raising her four grandchildren, ages 1, 2, 3, and 5. The GORRC program gave her funds to buy a laptop computer so she can do more of her schoolwork at home, where she can watch the children. “She’s doing such a good job taking care of the babies and herself,” Julie said, adding she was grateful to be able to support this family.

“GORRC is usually in a person’s life for a reason and a season,” Julie said. “These grandparents are really rising to the challenge.” Julie, and The Salvation Army as a whole, is thrilled to help them do just that.

Potential clients should call 311. 

*All client names have been changed to protect their privacy.

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