A Grand Family
A senior citizen wakes up, says his prayers and rises to meet a day he already knows will be challenging. Instead of enjoying retirement from the comfort of his porch, he’s raising two teenage grandchildren without any other family support. Every day he makes sure the children are fed, go to school and stay out of trouble, and every day he does so while dealing with a physical disability.
Donald Bowen of Oklahoma City has been doing this routine for nearly a decade, and he’s not alone. Nearly 3 million grandparents nationwide are raising their grandchildren without support from the children’s parents, according to the United States Census Bureau. Nearly one in four of these grandparents is disabled. Together, these statistics create challenges for grandparents, who obviously want the best for their children but at times are limited by circumstance. Bowen is 64, on Social Security and disabled—and charged with raising a 14-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy.
Like so many other grandparents, Bowen cares for his grandchildren because their parents are either unwilling or unable to do so themselves. “My son was in trouble and on drugs and I didn’t want my grandkids going into state custody,” Bowen explains. “I wanted to make sure they’d be raised right.” When asked what grandparents raising their grandchildren need from the state, he was succinct. “We need help. It’s really hard to raise grandkids when you don’t have the means, but I sacrifice a lot and do what I can because it’s what I’ve got to do. People don’t realize what these kids go through when their parents aren’t with them.”
Bowen thinks the state can do more to help grandparents raising grandchildren. “Right now, it’s not enough. I pay taxes for the downtown development, but I can’t afford to go downtown and take my grandkids to a ball game,” Bowen observes. “That’s money I could be using to pay for a few meals. I understand we’re making progress, but we’ve got to slow down and help those in need.”
Raising his grandchildren is not easy, Bowen says, but he says he hasn’t ever had an easy life. Born in Langston and raised on a cotton farm, Bowen said his family was poor but always happy. “That’s just how I was brought up. We didn’t make any money, but we were always content with what he had.” He’s believed in hard work his entire life. “Growing up, I picked cotton in Langston. I worked for 75 cents an hour at the Holiday Inn in Stillwater to support myself when I was 16 and I’ve been on my own ever since.” Bowen says his faith is important to him and he credits it for giving him the energy, patience and dedication to raise his grandchildren. “God gives me my strength and I thank him every day for it.”
Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of grandparents raising grandchildren in the United States. The state Department of Human Services—like many other agencies of state government—struggles in the face of consistent budget shortfalls as oil prices remain low and income and sales taxes decline. The clothing allowance for foster families has been frozen for years; DHS is still working in compliance with the Pinnacle Plan, a 2012 settlement agreement to overhaul its child welfare division; preliminary forecasts show Oklahoma to be facing yet another budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year.
The costs of raising a grandchild can be staggering. School supplies, clothing, health care and other expenses are additional challenges, especially for grandparents like Bowen who do their best with limited income. Another pervasive problem is that many of the biological parents are behind in child support payments, which means Bowen must provide even more money to help raise his grandchildren.
Oklahoma’s nonprofit community does tremendous work to help fill the gaps in the system. Sunbeam Family Services—an Oklahoma City nonprofit providing early childhood education, foster care, counseling and senior services—operates a program tailored specifically for grandparents raising grandchildren. Bowen, like hundreds if not thousands of other grandparents, turned to the nonprofit in a moment of desperation.
“Sometimes you just need help when things get out of hand. I can call Sunbeam and if they don’t have a way to help me, they’ll find another agency that does.” Sunbeam helps grandparents with school supplies for their grandkids and has done so for nearly two decades. “My kids were ready for the first day of school because of Sunbeam,” he says. “I wish we had more people like them!” Bowen says. “The entire organization has gone beyond my expectations.”
Although he is exhausted at the end of each day, Bowen knows his hard work is worth it. “I don’t ask anyone for pity—I do what I have to do to make it work. I do everything—clean, cook, mop—and I do it because that’s what family does. I’m blessed to be able to take care of these children. I just wish we had a little more help.”
Resources for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
Sunbeam Family Services sunbeamfamilyservices.org | (405) 528-7721
Youth and Family Services yfsok.org | (405) 262-6555
Center for Children and Family ccfinorman.org | (405) 364-1420
New Covenant Christian Church ncccokc.org | (405) 722-7445