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Hartford Development A Place For Grandparents Raising Children



December 29, 2008

Laura McCrae will be crying when Barack Obama is inaugurated as the nation's 44th president.

She feels a connection to him that surpasses their shared status as children of African American and white parents. McCrae is raising her grandchildren, just as Obama's grandmother raised him.

She feels validated, and so do her two granddaughters, who have suffered taunts from schoolmates.

McCrae, 45, has a lot of company. She lives in a community built for grandparents raising children in a North End neighborhood bordered by Clark, Capen and Barbour streets.

The development, called Generations, is a small piece of an answer to a growing issue in Hartford and other communities. The capital city has 2,157 children being raised in grandparent-headed households. Statewide, the number is 39,797, often because the children's parents are ill, dead, incarcerated, drug-addicted or troubled in some other way.

At Generations, the formula relies heavily on adapting and forming a community and in the complex itself using an old building, the former St. Michael's School, which the city no longer needed. The newly built, three-story town houses are home to 24 families headed by grandparents including McCrae.

"It's good to be around other adults who are going through what I'm going through," McCrae said.

McCrae was able to return to college this fall because the nonprofit organization that built and supports the development, Community Renewal Team, provides free child care in an activity center on campus. After nearly 10 years of raising her two granddaughters and son almost single-handedly, she now has a built-in support network right outside her door.

And now, her child rearing is part of the national political culture. Barack Obama was largely raised by his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, whose memorial service was last week, and it appears that Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, will accompany the family to the White House.

All of this makes it harder for society to marginalize grandparents raising grandchildren, the people at Generations say.

"With this, it says, 'Yes, things do happen in life, and families step in and take care of their kids. They turn out to be OK,'" said Carmen Stanford, program manager. "Because they are minorities in Hartford, the stereotype immediately comes to mind that their kids are in jail. With Obama winning and being black at the same time, it brings another light that the black family can succeed."

A Community Apart

On a typical Thursday night before the weather turned, adults sat on their second-story decks chatting with friends and neighbors, watching over the activity.

For all of the grandparents grandmothers, mostly the idea is to generate enough support to break the cycle of poverty and to create a community of people helping each other. Their porches face a back courtyard and parking area where children dig in a sand pit, throw a ball on the grass and ride bikes in the parking lot.

The town houses are part of a campus that includes the former St. Michael's School, built in 1927. It's also the former city-owned Clark Street School and the former Artists Collective. CRT bought the building and land from the city for $1 and preserved the brick building's historical integrity with architectural services from Paul B. Bailey and a historian.

City, state, federal and private grants funded the $10.5 million complex, which opened in October 2007 and has won several housing and preservation awards.

The grandparents know about the crime occurring right outside their block, they said, but they feel insulated from it through the physical separation of the campus and through their vibrant community.

One grandmother moved in without any furniture, dishes or other essentials, Stanford said. With the help of donations from other residents, her home is fully furnished.

And when a teenage boy died in a car crash, the other grandparents took care of his grandmother's three granddaughters and brought her food. CRT staff also arranged for grief counseling for the family and friends of the boy.

When the children are not playing outside, they're often in the community center on the bottom floor of the former school. An activity room for young children includes computers, tables, arts and crafts supplies, books and games. The teen room is packed with a PlayStation, a Wii, a pool table, pingpong table, air hockey, foosball, a dart board and a TV.

The center hosts classes on parenting and skills such as sewing. Social workers and case managers help grandparents navigate everything from job searches and college applications to coordinating educational services for their special needs children and grandchildren.

For example, CRT staff helped McCrae enroll in Springfield College to finish her bachelor's degree in sociology. She hopes to work as a caseworker helping other grandparents when she completes her degree.

"I never thought about going back to school until I came here," she said.

Pillars Of The Family

When her three grandchildren came to live with her, Robin Hussain, 45, found that most of her earnings were eaten up paying child care, so she had to leave a job she enjoyed.

She and her grandchildren, now age 6, 7 and 8, lived on public assistance that fell short of meeting basic needs. She juggled which bills to pay; the only apartment she could afford was in such a dangerous neighborhood that she and the children never left home after dark.

Now that her rent is based on her income, she said, she has some breathing room. "It means having money to put gas in the car to be able to take them to a park or a free activity."

With neighbors to watch her grandchildren, she can run out for a gallon of milk. "Sometimes, that's a sanity run."

She's trying to do a better job than she did with her own children, she said. She reads to her grandchildren and is involved in their education. "Anything you think you might have messed up with your kids, you try to make sure you don't mess up with your grandkids."

Abby Perez is raising her 15-year-old son, Jordan, and her partner's 4-year-old granddaughter, Hennessy.

Hennessy's father is incarcerated, and her mother has her hands full caring for a son with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. "I love this child," Perez said.

In her new home, she said, she feels safe because Hartford police use an office on campus and community officers are visible.

Perez, 41, said she feels as if there's an invisible border between the drug trafficking and prostitution going on in the neighborhood around them and the walls, lawn and parking lots of the Generations campus.

"I think the stuff stays away from us because to me, in our culture and in a lot of cultures, grandmas are the pillars of the family," Perez said. "So a lot of people even who don't respect their parents respect their grandmas and grandpas. I think just the title 'grandma' is keeping us safe."

The neighbor boy who died had been riding as a passenger in a stolen van that crashed, said Stanford, the program manager. Before leaving the complex, the teen had invited Perez's son Jordan to go along. He didn't go "because I didn't feel like it," Jordan said. "Sometimes you have to watch your choices."

He doesn't want to be labeled a "goody-goody kid," he said, but he was flattered when CRT hired him to work as an aide in the on-campus summer program for younger kids.

"Our hope is that we take the families and see what their goals are. They probably didn't think about hope," Stanford said. "We're asking them to think, 'What do I wish for my grandkids?'"

For some grandparents, it's the first time they've been asked about their goals.

"That was the critical component," said Monty Aheart, who spearheaded the construction and renovation for CRT. "If you don't have that, you're just another housing project. It's happening just like we hoped it would."

"It's good to be around other adults who are going through what I'm going through." Laura McCrae

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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