BY LEANN DILBECK –
As parents, we eventually expect our children to mature and become responsible adults and leave the nest, right? As empty nesters, we will grasp with finding much free-time and look forward to retirement that may possibly include traveling, gardening, spending leisure time with the grandchildren that includes plenty of spoiling … a sharp contrast to rigid school schedules, homework, and sports practices or recitals. However, a shockingly rapid-growing number of grandparents are not finding themselves enjoying that life of leisure but rather have “traded places” with the grandchildren’s parents and finding themselves as the primary and full-time parents of their grandchildren.
In fact, here are the staggering statistics according to the AARP and the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau: 3,733 grandparents are choosing to raise their grandchildren in Polk County, 760 of which are in Mena. Nationally, there are over 5.7 million grandparents that have grandchildren living with them on a full-time basis.
Ward and Trish Engelke are among those numbers and after walking a long, curvy and sometimes mountainous, road to achieving full-time guardianship of three of their grandsons, they are choosing to found GAP – Grandparents As Parents – as a resource for others who unexpectedly find themselves in this situation. “We certainly never expected this. We had a few months that we were empty nesters… got to enjoy going to dinner with friends, enjoying adult food like grilled fish. But now that’s been replaced with fish sticks,” joked Ward.
Their grandsons are 11, 10, 7, and they have a 5-year-old granddaughter that resides with her father but lives nearby and is able to maintain a relationship with her brothers.
Trish explained that there is such a tremendous process in which grandparents go through when finding themselves in this situation, emotionally, first but then the reality of the legal, financial, and educational aspects, just to name a few.
Trish explained it is an agonizing situation because you want to help your child and your grandchildren, “The dichotomy pulls you apart until you reach a point when your grandchildrens’ needs supercede those of your child’s.” Ward added, “You realize your child is an adult and has choices but the kids aren’t getting any choices and the instability becomes too much.”
Ward, who has served in full-time ministry, said he was most inspired to take action by scripture found in 1 Timothy 5:8 – “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever,” and thus, GAP was born.
GAP is a support organization that exists to help offer positive life-changing solutions to the complex role of equipping grandchildren on a full-time basis.
Trish explained that their journey was long, expensive, and full of attorneys, courtrooms and a complete world that had always been foreign to them. They spent their entire retirement and suddenly found their once debt-free lifestyle gone, “But it was worth every cent of it,” she says with a sparkle in her eye as she watches two of the boys play on their electronic tablet in the floor.
They then began to discuss the differences in raising children in the “digital age” versus when they raised their older children and the challenges it presents when you are unfamiliar with all of the latest technology but their older children have been a tremendous resource in that aspect.
Ward said it was the 10-year-old who first recognized that he and Trish had in effect “traded places” with their mother and had assumed full-time care of them while “Mom” visits a few times a week to love, spoil, and bring gifts. “She will always be their mother,” said Ward, “and we allow her to see them as long as it can be a positive experience for them.”
Trish explained that the first key step to make is learning to forgive yourself because of the responsibility you feel for your child and then learning to forgive your child for having put you in this new found position.
It is through the bonding and resources that GAP plans to bring that the Engelke’s hope they can fill the GAP for grandparents in need of navigating the complex path of not only assuming full-time guardianship but all the services that you may or may not qualify to help you financially provide for your grandchildren. “We plan to offer emotional support, fellowship, bring in speakers… all in a non-judgemental environment where everyone has a story to share.”
The group will hold their first meeting this Thursday at 10 a.m. at the former Crossing Church (rock building) at 1122 Maple Street. Anyone with any questions may call the Engelke’s at 479-227-0774 for more information.
“We are grandparents raising our grandchildren. We have surrendered our ‘empty-nests’ and ‘golden years’ for dance lessons, little league, and relearning the multiplication table to 12… yet one more time. Although the details will vary, all of us are walking a similar path and share a unique bond. That is to say… we love our grandchildren and will do whatever we need to do for them.”