Group helps grandparents raising grandchildren

By Rita Giordano, Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA >> On a cold January night two years ago, Regina Cappelli, a single grandmother raising two young grandsons, got the call from her local county child welfare agency.

Another grandchild — an infant — had just been removed from Cappelli’s daughter, also the mother of the other boys. Come get the baby, or he would go into foster care, she was told.

Overwhelmed and unprepared, Cappelli called Karen Barnes, another single grandmother raising a grandchild.

“I was devastated and I was in tears,” Cappelli, a resident of Delaware County, recalled. “When you get these kids, you get the clothes on their back and that’s it. I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’”

Grands Stepping Up, which lends support to grand-parents raising their grandchildren, opened a pantry for those needing food assistance, clothing and baby goods. It provides other kinds of support as well. Board member Amie Cannon, above, is in charge of pantry food safety. At left, some of the donated meals.

Her friend wasn’t just sympathetic. She was outraged.

“Karen said, ‘That’s it!

Something’s got to be done!’”

That night, Barnes took to social media. The next day, when she showed up at Cappelli’s home, the grandmother couldn’t believe her eyes.

“She filled up my living room!” said Cappelli, now raising her three grandsons. “Four contractor bags full of clothes, diapers out the wazoo, formula, a Pack ‘n Play, a stroller, blankets galore, wipes. I couldn’t imagine something like that from just overnight.”

That’s how Grands Stepping Up was born. The nonprofit organization provides support to grandparents raising grandchildren and kinship guardians raising family members.

“Everything I do and try to empower others to do comes from saying yes,” said Barnes, 58.

FOR BARNES, a former volunteer program coordinator, saying yes meant taking custody of and eventually adopting her granddaughter, Ellianna, now 9. It meant finding help for other guardians who needed a hand, just like she often had.

The organization has come a long way in two years:

>> It runs Denis’ Pantry, a place where any member of the Delaware County com munity, and grandparents from anywhere, can come for food, clothing and baby goods. The organization estimates the pantry, located in a church basement, served about 500 families last year.

>> Grands Stepping Up has partnered with other organizations to provide free art programs for the grand-kids.

>> The organization has helped provide holiday meals for hundreds of grandfamilies.

>> It now offers a legal clinic, with local family lawyers offering their services on a sliding scale.

>> The group has garnered the help of three licensed therapists who volunteer their services for trauma-focused counseling.

>> It provides financial assistance.

“We truly are, as grand-parents and most importantly, the children, the silent victims of the opioid epidemic and the mental-health crisis in this country,” said Barnes.


But the presence of Grands Stepping Up has allowed these families to help one another.

“It’s like a parenting organization for grandparents,” said Mary Eileen Johnston, 62, a grandmother raising her 4-year-old grandson. “I know they’ll always be there for me, even if it’s just to ring and say, ‘I need to talk.’”

JOHNSTON discovered the organization on Face-book about two years ago. She stopped by the pantry to check it out, bringing some items to donate, and got to know some of the people active in the group.

Johnston was able to find recreation opportunities for her grandson. The family recevied arts supplies and her grandson took dance lessons donated by a dance studio. Johnston is now a pantry volunteer.

Members of the larger community also pitch in. Amie and Jim Cannon, who adopted five children from the foster care system, are among them.

Jim Cannon, of Cannon Handyman Services, fixes grandparents’ heaters. Amie helped run a gardening project in which grandchildren grew tomatoes that they presented to grandparents.

“It’s kids learning to give back,” she said.

Kathy Baggio, 68, a retired medical transcriptionist, is also a pantry volunteer and chair of the organization’s support group.

While raising her grandsons, ages 12 and 17, the organization helped with desperately needed car repairs, utility bills and funds toward a security deposit for housing.

“There’s definitely not enough support for the grandparents, and I’m not saying that because I am one,” Baggio said.

“A lot of grandparents have given up their savings, if they had any. They are on fixed incomes, and things have become so much harder out there.”

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