Big problems are hard to solve — and often we feel one person cannot make a difference. If you read this story, I hope you remember Shana Clay. She’s just one person, but did what she could to help, and it started a chain reaction that is giving seniors hope all over our great state, and spilling over into the rest of the nation.
Last year, a program for seniors who are parenting their grandchildren was running out of funding — West Virginia State University’s “Healthy Grandfamilies.” The program is a free educational series on parenting, legal issues, social media use, public school policies, family response to addiction, nutrition, health literacy/self-care and stress management. It relied on grants from the state and private entities. However, money had dried up, and “Healthy Grandfamilies” was slated to be discontinued.
At a meeting with program officials and interested parties to brainstorm funding ideas, an accountant named Shana Clay, at the West Virginia Department of Education, said, “I know a delegate at the Legislature. Maybe she would help?”
Although the idea was met with skepticism, Ms. Clay decided to try. After learning about what the program did, the delegate arranged for the program’s director, Bonnie Dunn, to testify before the Seniors, Children and Families Committee. After that, Republicans on the Finance Committee amended the state budget to not only provide funding for Kanawha County, where the program operated, but gave $300,000 to expand the program across the state. The amendment received very broad bipartisan support.
Before you decry “wasteful” government spending, know this — the Legislature contributed the seed money to expand, but that money was just the start of what was needed. WVSU has continued to search for donations to fill in the funding gaps, with new success.
The program expanding to 55 counties has captured the attention of insurance companies, who see an opportunity to invest in preventative services, thereby saving on health care costs. Grandparents who learn they have access to already existing federal and state funding, legal aid and stress management equals fewer emergency room and doctor’s office visits. It also means healthier seniors and grandchildren. Public-private partnerships help stretch state dollars so taxpayer money gets more bang for the buck.
Grandparents raising the next generation face serious obstacles. Many face retirement, with the challenges of reduced income, ailments and lessened energy. That doesn’t stop them from taking on responsibilities forsaken by others and becoming parents to a generation of abandoned children. Many seniors are in desperate situations — going to bed at night hungry or without required medication, so their grandchildren have a hot meal and clothes to wear to school. That’s why this program is so vitally necessary to West Virginia, No. 2 in the nation for the percentage of seniors raising children.
In just the few months since the program has become a statewide initiative, there’s been significant progress:
28 social workers from several statewide agencies have been trained in the needs of grandfamilies.
- Nearly 30 counties have been trained.
- National news, including CBS and NPR, have featured “Healthy Grandfamilies” and how it is addressing the after-effects of the opioid crisis.
- Other states are taking notice of how West Virginia is prioritizing kinship care, including New Hampshire and Kentucky, which are now modeling aspects of their programs after ours.
West Virginia owes an enormous debt (of more than just gratitude) to the seniors who are raising children who would otherwise be a part of the state-run foster care system, already stretched to the breaking point by the drug crisis. The Legislature’s allocation to “Healthy Grandfamilies” is a good use of taxpayer money, and it’s being frugally managed by WVSU — we should continue providing the seed money for the next couple of years, until the program is established in all 55 counties.
It can then be supported by private donations and subsidized by the companies that are profiting from its existence. $300,000 is a drop in the bucket of debt we owe West Virginia seniors for this invaluable service. The millions spent on drug treatment is a necessary thing; however, don’t our seniors who are doing hero’s work with the youngest and most vulnerable of our state’s citizens deserve our support, as well?