By Jeff Herman
Waking at 6 am each morning, Shirley P. Reed knows how to hustle. This force of nature works to balance getting her grandkids and great-grandkids out the door every day while also managing to lead Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group of Aldine-Harris County (GRGSG), the 501(c)3 non-profit organization she founded in 2004.
Shirley has a long history of community activism. Originally from New York, she had experienced the benefits of having a police presence in her old neighborhood. “I knew my local officers because I saw them every day walking the beat,” she says. “That level of familiarity offered some stability.” Trusting her experience and intuition, Shirley was able to convince a commercial landlord to provide a space for a Harris County Sheriff’s Storefront in the East Aldine Management District. “We were without any law enforcement here,” she remembers. “Our businesses were being robbed and leaving the area.” The storefront brought law back to the community–which was one of the biggest needs The storefront opened in 1996 with a specific focus on “training deputies to be effective in the community.” Soon after businesses returned and thrived.
People took notice, including Arlene Nichols, an aide to Former State Representative Kevin Bailey, who encouraged Shirley to expand her vision for improving her community into what would eventually become GRGSG. Nichols, a community champion in her own right, recognized a need to support the grandparents upon which the responsibility of raising their grandchildren had fallen. At the time, Shirley was supporting her own grandchildren, following the death of her daughter, murdered during a home robbery. The idea clicked and GRGSG was born, created around the mission to “support positive understanding of reparenting with love by empowering and strengthening the family.”
“People don’t see the need,” says Shirly, “but the need is very great.” She is right. Over 2.4 million grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren, based on previous U.S. Census reports. To put it another way, 1 in 10 children are living with a grandparent–roughly 7.7 children. This new trend in childrearing isn’t confined to one demographic. “People have a stereotype that grandparents raising grandchildren are all African American or Hispanics,” she explains. “According to a recent Pew report, 24% of Caucasian children are being raised by a grandparent.”
GRGSG supports this growing community of seniors with its annual “Family Strengthening Conference” which helps provide information and resources that multigenerational families need most. Free health screenings and lunch are provided, and attendees can sit with representatives from social services (Medicaid, CHIP), college preparation counselors and social security to better understand what support may be available to them. Back-to-school supplies are also distributed. The event typically serves 250 families, each with 3-4 children. “People came from all over–Baytown–everywhere to hear our speakers,” notes Shirley. “We had judges and lawyers discussing legal aspects involved, and how to get people off drugs, mental health issues.” Important topics, considering the percentage of the population who are raising grandchildren is higher in areas that have higher opioid prescribing rates.
While the majority of GRGSG’s work is helping families navigate the hurdles involved in the complicated and serious issues around custody, mental health and addiction, Shirley feels it is also important to recognize and reward grandparents for their sacrifice. Each December, GRGSG shifts focus to Christmas gift donations to needy families and the annual Senior Citizen Gala, which has seen attendance soar to over 700 people in past years. “We invite pioneers in the area, those who have kept us going all of these years,” says Shirley. “Retired teachers, janitors, local school board–they all come!”
You can support the efforts of GRGSG in the East Aldine Management District by making a direct monetary donation and holiday toys for needing families. Volunteers are needed as board members and to help with the annual events. Please see their website for more information and how you can help Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.