Community center helps Grandparents forced to revisit their roles as caregivers

With her children giving up on their parenting duties over 10 years ago, South End resident Dorris Morton found herself shouldering a heavy parenting load. With five abandoned grandchildren suddenly under her roof, Morton realized she needed some solid tips on how to raise young kids.

Hearing about a parenting class at the Rainier Beach Family Center, she began attending and immediately saw a need for one that specifically addressed the concerns of older caregivers who have unexpectedly found themselves caring for their grandchildren.

Morton, who died three years ago, took her cause to The Atlantic Street Center's main office in a historic brick building just off of Rainier Avenue South and South Atlantic Street. Two United Methodist Missionaries founded the social service organization in the Rainier Valley in 1910 to help low-income families in Seattle's south and central areas. Since its inception, Atlantic Street has provided area families and youth with effective and much needed education, mental health counseling, and family support assistance in obtaining community resources.

"She decided that there were a lot of grandparents that needed support," recalled Tamsen Spengler, the Atlantic Street Center's program manager for their Rainier Beach Family Center branch, who added that officials at the center immediately saw the value of Morton's request and helped her jumpstart the program.

"[Morton's] children were incarcerated," Spengler noted. "With most of the grandparents that I see in this support group, their children have either given up on the kids and dropped them off at the grandparents and said, 'I can't deal with this anymore,' or they're incarcerated."

Spengler stated the program currently includes 42 grandparents watching over about 75 children. However, Spengler said a typical Thursday night group will draw a crowd of around 20 grandparents, mainly single women and primarily African American (80 percent). Spengler, who's been with the program for the past seven years, added there are also Hispanic, Caucasian, and Cambodian participants to name a few other ethnic backgrounds. Morton's gut feeling that there were others out in the community who were like her and wanted help was right.

"Most of these grandparents themselves are in their 50s and 60s. They're young grandparents," said Spengler. "Some of these grandparents have been very isolated and think that it's only them going through this."

Originally located on Beacon Hill in the United Methodist Church along South Othello Street, the group is facilitated by Pamela Elessa, a social worker for the past 12 years who has lived in the South End for the past nine. Two years ago the program relocated to its new site within the Rainier Beach Community Center complex.

"We wanted to get down into this community where the families are that we really serve," Spengler asserted.

Structured around a solid regime of support-group style therapy, each session begins with a dinner provided by the Atlantic Center a half an hour before the group's official start. The center also provides the funds for childcare during the session, the mental health services, and any needed transportation.

"If you take away those barriers, then the people will come," Spengler observed.

And it's not just the grandparents who receive help. After dinner, the children, ranging in ages from three to 17-years-old, go to a combination of childcare and social skills classes within the family center complex.

"[The children] are having feelings of abandonment, loss, and grief," said Spengler. "Those are the types of issues we are working with in their social skills classes."

Similarly, the first and third Thursday of the month finds the grandparents discussing their emotional, mental, and social issues with a mental health professional in a group atmosphere. The second Thursday of the month features a guest speaker, and the fourth Thursday is business night where the group discusses fundraising, outreach, upcoming speakers, and the overall vibe, direction, and fiscal status of the group. The city provides most of the group's annual $30,000 budget with the Atlantic Street Center supplementing as needed.

"It's a very new phenomenon; new in that they don't have a choice. They are re-parenting, some for the second and third time: some their great-grandchildren," Elessa observed about the vibrant, upbeat group. "The make me laugh until I have tears in my eyes. They're just so full of life it just kills me."

The Rainier Beach Family Center's Grandparents and Kinship Caregivers in Action group meets every Thursday with diner beginning at 6 p.m. and the group running from 6:30 until 8:30 p.m. The Rainier Beach Family Center is located at 8825 Rainier Ave. S. inside The New School at Southshore. For more information, call 206-723-1301 or e-mail[[In-content Ad]]