Shandi Ward made a decision nearly 17 years ago that changed her life.
Ward, who lives in Pond Creek, was in her late-40s when her stepgranddaughter Mackenzie was born in 2005, with her father being Ward’s husband’s son.
“I cut (Mackenzie’s umbilical) cord when she was born — she stole my heart right there,” Ward said.
About a year later, Ward began taking full-time care of Mackenzie as her parents were unable to, and Ward wanted to make sure Mackenzie was taken care of, especially after receiving a diagnosis of neurofibromatosis at 5 years old.
“Mackenzie was 1 year old, and she became my daughter after that,” Ward, now 63, said. “I just wanted to make sure she was taken care of, especially health-wise, later on.”
Ward is just one of millions of grandparents raising grandchildren across the United States. Almost 90,000 children in Oklahoma are being raised by their grandparents.
There are many reasons why grandparents begin taking care of their grandchildren, either temporarily or permanently, including parental death, substance abuse and incarceration, said Twila Doucet, caregiver coordinator at Long Term Care Authority of Enid Area Agency on Aging.
The addition of a child or multiple children into their grandparents’ homes, while bringing lots of love, may also come with extra stresses and expenses, as grandparents may be on a fixed income or have mobility issues.
“Grandparents are usually looking forward to retirement or are already retired, and then they can get hit with raising a child again,” Doucet said. “It’s definitely life-changing for grandparents.”
When Ward, who had raised two daughters already, began taking care of baby Mackenzie, she said it was like “starting all over again.”
“They say it’s like riding a bike — like you don’t forget,” said Ward, who also helped care for another granddaughter — who is now 20 years old — when the granddaughter was in her early teens. “You might not forget it, but your body is sure going, ‘Are you serious?'”
When Mackenzie was diagnosed with NF, Ward paid for doctors appointments, gas to take Mackenzie to Bennie’s Barn for therapeutic horse riding and other healthcare needs, as well as basic things children need — clothes, toys, education and food each person in the house liked .
Finances became especially more difficult after her husband retired.
“But never in a million years did I think about giving Mackenzie up,” Ward said.
She said if she had to do it all over again, she would.
“Love is a very big deal in raising grandchildren,” Ward said. “You have to love them before you can choose to take them.”
Being raised by a grandparent
For the majority of Jezmyn Wallace’s life, her late grandmother Billie Lasley raised her and had legal custody of her.
Wallace, 29, grew up knowing Lasley, who was either 60 or 61 years old when she started taking care of Wallace as her grandmother, as did all of her friends. They all even called her, “Grandma,” themselves.
“I didn’t have anything to compare it to,” Wallace said.
Wallace said it wasn’t until she got older she realized the financial challenges her grandmother faced, as Lasley was retired and possibly on a fixed income at that point — depending “on child support that wasn’t being received.”
But, that didn’t stop Lasley from enrolling Wallace in things like dance, piano and swimming lessons.
“She made sure I had a normal childhood, even if she was struggling to do that,” Wallace said.
Being raised by Lasley came with a lot of stories. Lasley was born in 1931 and lived through the Great Depression, World War II and other major historical events — living a whole lifetime before Wallace came around.
Wallace said she wants community members to know that not every family looks the same.
“I hope, in the future, there are more resources and more conversations — awareness and respectfulness,” Wallace said. “Especially for children in school doing family history projects, or anything for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day — let that child adapt.”
Wallace said she always knew Lasley, like Ward, made a life-changing choice, and Wallace wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“It wasn’t forced upon her,” Wallace said. “She made the choice to raise me. She made the choice to take legal custody of me, and people have to remember that. …
“I was always just so thankful for her.”
Grandparents who are raising their grandchildren can find multiple resources for help.
Ward began using LTCA of Enid AAA resources as soon as she could, as well as other services, though she said she hopes more financial assistance and social activities for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren are created.
LTCA of Enid AAA offers respite assistance for grandparents 55 and older who are raising their minor children through age 18, and 19 to 59 with disabilities. The voucher program can be used to help pay for respite services or summer camp.
Additionally, a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren is held at 1 pm every fourth Tuesday of the month at LTCA of Enid AAA, 202 W. Broadway.
“The thing about a support group is it’s nice to have somebody else who is going through something similar as you — to know you’re not the only one,” Doucet said.
For any information about resources available for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, contact LTCA of Enid AAA by calling (580) 234-7475.
The Department of Human Services also provides resources and services for grandparents fostering their grandchildren who have been removed from their parents’ homes.
Children removed from their parents’ homes may have been exposed to trauma from abuse and neglect, and placing them with a foster family they don’t know could also be traumatic, said Tina Frazer, Region 1 district director for DHS.
“When we can place children in a home with their grandparents, who they could already have a relationship with and are already comfortable with, it is a lot less traumatic and immediately helps the child heal better,” Frazer said. “It also helps the biological parents by already having an established relationship with the people who are going to be providing care for their child, as well.”
Frazer said DHS offers payment assistance programs and can connect them with other resources in the community.
“We will definitely find them resources to help them with parenting again,” Frazer said.
Wallace said it’s important for the resources to be available.
“(Those resources) are awesome, because I know that’s something (Lasley) didn’t have,” Wallace said.
Grandparents who are raising their grandchildren need to take time for themselves, Doucet said, encourage them to join a support group, take care of their own health needs, take time for themselves, set limits and boundaries with grandchildren and keep a sense of humor.
“No matter what kind of caregiver you are, it can be stressful,” Doucet said. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of them.”