story by Kathryn Purcell
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Eleven-year-old Brandon Lawrence likes sweets. He likes to eat them, make them and share them.
It's no surprise then, at least not to patrons and employees of the Morgan County Senior Center, that Brandon showed up Thursday morning with a tin foil-wrapped, oversized iced lemon pound-cake in hand.
"He likes to cook," Euria Chenault, Brandon's aunt, said.
Chenault knew of Brandon's love for sweets from the first time she saw him. It was Halloween night, and one-year-old Brandon was sitting up on the bank of a Putnam County trailer park and eating candy.
"I snatched him off the bank and carried him home with me," Chenault said.
Brandon's mother was incarcerated, and he was staying with his mother's sister, Chenault's niece, who left Brandon to run an errand, according to Chenault.
Consequently, she found Brandon, put him in her car and carried him to the hospital. Given a clean bill of health, Chenault then took him home, bathed him and put him to bed.
The following Monday, she headed to the courthouse, where she was legally named his guardian.
"Monday morning I went to the judge's office," Chenault said. "He let me have him."
Chenault, 60 years old at this point, didn't have any children of her own.
Marilyn Garver's story also involves the legal system, as the guardianship of her granddaughters, 13-year-old Krysta Carithers and eight-year-old Haley Ford, was "court-ordered," according to Garver. She chooses to leave it at that.
"It's hard to explain," eight-year-old Haley said.
The circumstances regarding how these families came into existence are all different, and all-too-often complex. As diverse as their back-stories are, however, they share a common factor - all involve senior citizens raising relative children. The task is difficult, but these families are able to look to the Morgan County Senior Center's Family Ties program to find support through each other.
The program began with a call - from Peggy Jenkins, Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center (RDC)'s Area Agency on Aging (AAA) director, to Elizabeth Cross, Morgan County Senior Center director - and a question. Jenkins asked Cross to pilot the Kinship Care Program in Morgan County.
While Cross and the Senior Center staff understood that piloting such a program would be a challenge, they felt they saw a need.
"I said, 'Yes, we'd love to,' because we knew a lot of grandmothers and grandfathers who were taking care of their grandchildren," Cross said.
The Kinship Care Program, renamed "Family Ties," started in Morgan County in September 2005 with the purpose of providing support and resources to grandparents and relatives given the responsibility of raising related children whose original families were ripped apart due to substance abuse, incarceration, death, mental and physical illness, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), child abuse and neglect, according to information provided by the Senior Center.
In the program's early stages, meetings were held monthly at 10 a.m. Four caregivers were able to attend, and didn't bring the children to meetings.
"It's like any pilot program, you have to go with it," Cross said. "We had big difficulty getting people to come to meetings and join; they had to work."
Meetings are presently held at 5 p.m. on the second Monday of each month, and dinner is typically donated by various Madison restaurants. After dinner together, the Senior Center provides activities for the children while caregivers attend Support Groups or Community/Public Education meetings. Support Groups allow caregivers to share their experiences, get advice regarding resources and get assistance in developing problem-solving skills, while Community/Public Education meetings allow caregivers to glean information through speakers from organizations responsible for serving the needs of these caregivers - legal or guardianship issues, financial assistance programs, social services for Family Ties families, parenting concerns and juvenile laws, according to provided information. So far, favorite speakers include Mark Williams of the Morgan County Sheriff's Office "Explorers" program and Morgan County Probate and Traffic Court Judge Mike Bracewell.
Currently, the program serves between 10 and 15 families.
Chenault sometimes has trouble with transportation, while Garver expressed having difficulty with legal or guardianship issues and discipline. However, when asked what they struggle with the most, both immediately expressed frustration with financial issues.
Family Ties meetings function as a springboard for the resolution of these issues.
"I've got so many people to help me," Chenault said.
"It benefits me in a miracle way," Garver said. "It makes me happy, blesses me. I know it blesses them (the children)."
Funding for Family Ties comes through grants and material aid money. In addition to continually receiving material aid money from the AAA, the program applied and was selected for the Central Georgia EMC Operation Round-Up Grant in 2007.
The funding is used to assist Family Ties families in the purchase of book-bags and school supplies, Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas gifts as well as making Family Ties-sponsored after-school programs, summer activities and summer camp scholarships possible.
"It's very rewarding to us to see the joy it brings to the kids as well as the grandparents," Missy Mauldin, Senior Center assistant, said. "These kids are going to grow up to be great, great adults."
To become a member of the Family Ties program, caregivers must be 55 years or older, and children must be 18 years or younger. Caregivers must provide Legal Guardianship papers or a signed, notarized Guardianship Letter, available at the Senior Center, and must attend at least nine Family Ties meetings per year.
For more information on Family Ties membership criteria, call (706) 342-1614.