FAIRMONT — West Virginia is second in the nation for the number of grandparents raising school-age children.

According to grandfamilies.org, there are more than 35,000 children in West Virginia that live in primary custody of their grandparents. How these children end up in these situations varies, but the struggles faced by grandparents are largely the same.

Raising a child is difficult enough and that responsibility only gets more challenging with age. Grandfamilies — who typically live on fixed incomes — struggle with finances, resources and general knowledge about raising their grandchildren.

This is where programs like Healthy Grandfamilies can help. Healthy Grandfamilies is a collaborative organization that works with Family Services of Marion and Harrison Counties, local school systems and West Virginia State University to provide access to resources to grandfamilies.

“I’m basically a person that these families can contact to help them with whatever they have going on,” said Candace Golaszewski, a social worker with Health Grandfamilies. “Sometimes these grandparents just had these kids dropped off on their doorstep and they need help as soon as possible.”

Golaszewski connects grandparents to resources covering such needs as financial help, housing, clothing. She can even help grandparents with obtaining custody of the children.

The program also hosts its educational sessions with local agencies to help with such life challenges as stress management and moral support. The main goal is to make it clear to grandparents that they are not alone. The sessions are once a week and cover 11 topics in 11 weeks.

Additional topics covered range from relationships and the legal system to technology and social media. Once grandparents complete the 11 sessions they “graduate.”

“We have all these grandparents that are stepping up to raise their grandchildren and are making sure that these children have the lives they deserve,” Golaszewski said. “It’s amazing, just the selflessness of these grandparents and they deserve all the help we can give them.”

In West Virginia, there are more than 7,000 children in the foster care system, up from 4,000 kids 10 years ago, according to Kids Count Data Center. If not for grandparents, the numbers would be dramatically higher.

What is causing grandparents to be forced to raise their grandchildren? Often, the kids’ parents end up in drug treatment, prison or death due to the opioid epidemic.

“We work with a lot of grandparents,” Marion County School Superintendent Donna Hage said. “If we don’t want [opioids] to be a generational problem, we have to start educating these students and supporting those who are being raised by their grandparents.”

Marion County Schools are planning to use American Rescue Plan funds to hire outreach specialists who can go into the community and connect grandfamilies to programs where they can even more support.

In many cases, grandfamilies are forced to make tough financial decisions regarding the needs of the children, as well as their own needs.

“Many times these families are making decisions between their own nutritional needs, medication needs or health needs just so they can support these children in their care,” Hage said.

The number of these families is only going up and programs like Healthy Grandfamilies have their work cut out for them.

“These issues have always been here but it’s become much more prevalent lately in the last couple years,” Golaszewski said. “That really shows the need for programs that help grandparents navigate these systems and raise these kids on top of that.”

To find out information about programs and options available to grandfamilies, visit healthygrandfamilies.com or call their office at 304-366-4750, extension 113.

Reach David Kirk at 304-367-2522 or by email at dkirk@timeswv.com.

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