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Support Group Creates Unique Bond

Gladys Lemmons Senior Center in Oakdale offers more than adequate activities for community members enjoying the 'Golden Years.' On any given day one might enjoy a hand of bridge, get their heart pumping with a game of badminton or warm up their pipes with the singing seniors group.

With the number of grandparents raising grandchildren growing daily in this country, a new group has been formed in the last year - Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. The group meets every Tuesday from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and offers grandparents support and information on raising grandchildren.

This group is especially unique, as they are not only raising grandchildren but grandchildren with special needs.

"We offer information and advocate information on education to the bio-parents, grandparents and relative caregivers raising children with special needs," Lillie Clark, Behavior Health Advocate said.

Clark is joined each week by Community Worker Norma Hernandez, who helps lead the group. The two women are employees of Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.

"We are trying to go where we are needed," Hernandez said. "This program is part of the MHSA (Mental Health Service Act)."

"The services are free," Clark added. "To be culturally competent we have access to interpreters. And we welcome newcomers dropping in."

There is no argument that being a kid today is no easy task. The education system demands that children know more sooner than 20 years ago and technology offers many pluses and minuses to the average student.

Imagine being the parent or grandparent of a child with special needs. A child who on the surface appears to be like everyone else, yet finds struggles to connect in the classroom. Often children with special needs have a hard time verbalizing with their parents and peers, and a 'normal' classroom setting can just compound the challenge.

Oakdale resident Vikki Beck knows all about these challenges. Beck began attending the group in the spring after being referred by Oakdale High School.

Beck is currently the only bio-parent (biological) in the group, and described her daughter as 17 and her condition as behavioral.

"It helps me cope with how to deal with her and her problems and my problems too," she said of the group.

Beck also shared she felt her relationship with her daughter had improved since attending the group, learning to deal with her frustrations and verbalize more.

"We've noticed personal growth for Vikki," Clark said. "It's helped her parental skill, her knowledge and their relationship."

Grandparents Terry and Nellie Stark first brought their grandson to Oakdale three-and-a-half years ago. He is now 11 years old and in the sixth grade at Reyn Franca School in Denair. The Starks have adopted their grandson.

The couple shared the 11-year-old's school day is long. It starts at 6 a.m. with a two-hour bus ride to school and concludes with a two-hour return ride home, some 10to 11 hours later.

Nellie Stark stated that the couple knew there were going to be issues when they took their grandson.

"It's a process," Terry Stark shared. "There were some real problems when he first got here, but he's settled down now. He's like a normal kid now."

"The group is so helpful, because you try to talk to other parents (outside the group) and they say 'if it was my kid' and that just doesn't work," Nellie said.

"It does make it tricky," Terry added, "because we have other grandchildren. He addresses us as mom and dad."

Riverbank resident Patricia Khanasa is currently raising four of her grandchildren.

"They all had some problems when I got them, because of abandonment and neglect from the parents," Kahnasa shared.

"The group gives me the opportunity to express what I feel and discuss what went on during the week. Vent ... is what the word is," she said.

Khanasa proudly shared that with much work and effort, all four of her grandchildren are in public school and doing well. Three of them are in high school and one is in secondary school.

Nifty Johnson, also of Riverbank, has raised three grandchildren. Her granddaughter came to her when she was in kindergarten; she is now 26. The younger two are now in high school.

"All three were born with drugs in their system," Johnson said.

Johnson first started with the group in Modesto. When they expanded to Oakdale, she began attending meetings here.

"This support has helped me a whole lot," she shared. "I was ready to give up, but their support helped me continue."

A story reported on in March 2007 cited that over 2.4 million American grandparents are currently raising grandchildren. The number of those raising children with special needs has yet to be reported. Regardless of the statistics hopefully with the help and guidance of Clark, Hernandez and Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services these children will be able to transition into a life all children should be entitled to.

For more information on the Oakdale Grandparents Raising Grandparents support group call 845-3566. For information on other meetings or services offered by the county, call 558-7494.