Subscribe for 17¢ / day

When Bonnie Wozniak rented her two-bedroom apartment in Caledonia, she had found a place with everything she needed.

There was a small kitchen, a spare bedroom for visitors and a living room with plenty of space. There wasn't really room for children, but that was OK.

Bonnie was finally on her own after sharing her home with children and grandchildren for 35 years. Michael Kossack, the oldest of her two sons, was born in 1967. Her boys grew up and moved out, but things didn't always go as planned. Michael and his family moved back in from time to time; they lived with her off and on for 14 years.

By 2002, "everybody more or less had their acts together," Bonnie recalled, so she signed the lease on her new apartment. The one with all the space she needed. Bonnie was looking forward to living on her own: working, hunting for fossils and unusual rocks, spending time with friends.

A phone call from Michael changed all that.

Ready to step in

Grandparents do not take in their grandchildren because everything is fine.

Some children who move in with their grandparents have abusive parents, or parents with drug and alcohol problems. Criminal activity is sometimes a factor, and one or both parents may be in jail or prison. Illness and injury also keep parents from raising their own children.

In all of these cases, grandparents are often ready to step in, changing their lives to help the people they love.

Bonnie is one of more than 1,300 Racine County grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, according to the 2000 census, and almost 1,000 of them are in the city of Racine. Nationally, the number of grandparents caring for their grandchildren is on the rise, and homes where grandparents are the primary caregivers jumped 19 percent between 1990 and 1997.

When grandchildren move in, people like Bonnie have to find ways to become parents decades after their own children left the house.

A mother again

Bonnie was called to take her grandchildren after Michael was seriously injured in a car accident; the girls' mother was in jail, after being convicted on theft and fraud charges.

At age 57, when Bonnie could look to the future and just about see retirement, she became a single parent. Leanna, 9, and Alyssa, 6, came to live with their grandmother. A younger sister and brother are living with another family member; they are still under court protection and cannot be identified.

The girls moved in last August, and Bonnie's apartment of her own turned into a room of her own in a home geared toward her granddaughters.

The spare bedroom became the girls' room. The living room became what Bonnie calls the "multi-purpose area." The kitchen table is there, as is a corner curio cabinet packed with the girls' keepsakes. Most of Bonnie's figurines have been packed away to make room for the girls' collections: Leanna's bears and Alyssa's unicorns. There's a television and VCR. The girls enjoy "The Princess Diaries," old Shirley Temple movies and cartoons like "All Dogs Go To Heaven" and "Monsters, Inc." Toys line the back wall. A computer is tucked into a corner.

The girls take over the kitchen table with homework and art projects almost every day. Leanna paints flowers and butterflies and writes her name in flowing cursive. Alyssa fills pages with strong strokes of bold colors.

Dress-up is a favorite game, and Bonnie keeps a chest filled with fancy dresses and Halloween costumes collected from older cousins and garage sales. The dress-up games give the girls a chance to let their imaginations loose, escaping for a time from the anxieties built up during their early years.

Times have changed

Grandparents who take in grandchildren are older than they were when they first chased after toddlers or shuttled teenagers around town. Society has changed and so have parenting norms. Children face more pressure from peers and society than they did 30 years ago, when Bonnie's boys were young.

The changes can be overwhelming, but once Bonnie knew she had girls to raise, she got to work.

When the girls moved in last year Bonnie successfully applied to be the girls' legal guardian. It gives her the official authority to make decisions for the girls about school field trips, weekend getaways and medical care. Bonnie wants the girls to feel safe and secure in her home.

"There's been a lot of turmoil," Bonnie said. "They've had three visits with their mom. It's been rough, emotion-wise."

The girls' mother is out of jail now and living in northern Wisconsin. The visits disrupt the routine Bonnie has built for two girls who have spent their lives without a permanent place to call home. Neither of the girls' parents have terminated their parental rights, and they could apply for custody of the children.

Bonnie is trying to give the girls stability after years moving throughout the Racine area. To do that she has to find ways to stretch her paycheck to cover a three-person family. The girls qualify for medical assistance, which helps when they need treatment for asthma, ear infections and bronchitis. Bonnie also receives kinship aid from the state.

Government aid and assistance reduce the costs associated with becoming an instant parent, but it is still not easy. Like other single parents, Bonnie has to balance her work schedule with day care. She rarely gets home before 6:30 p.m., and the girls are in child care for several hours each day.


As the details of Bonnie's home life changed, so did her social life. "Just simple stuff like dating," she said. "People my age don't want to be tied down with kids, and people who have kids are younger."

The generation-skip between her and the girls makes Bonnie question some of her parenting decisions. When Bonnie was young the Mouseketeers were in full swing; now there is Britney Spears. Clothes that are accepted now would never have been allowed when her two sons were young, and television shows have so much questionable content. She enlists help from two older granddaughters to make sure she is not being overly strict or lenient. "I don't know what I'd do without them," Bonnie said. "I defer to them: `Am I being too hard? Can they watch this?' "

It can be hard to figure out what influences the girls. She caught them dancing suggestively one day and tried to track down where they saw the moves. It was an underwear commercial.

School work was another problem. In the 40 years since Bonnie was in school, curriculum and teaching methods changed. She had to brush up on some subjects, especially math and science. Bonnie knew how to use the Internet and surfed the Web to learn how to raise kids in 2005.

Had she turned to the library instead, she would have found dozens of books about being a traditional grandparent, only around for special visits. There are books filled with funny stories about grandchildren and on how to make the most out of the limited time you see them. Several books address how to avoid parenting your grandchild, the opposite of what Bonnie needed.

Four books may have answered some of Bonnie's questions. One is about grandparents' legal rights, another is for anyone raising someone else's children. A census packet details the increase in grandparents raising grandchildren. Only one book is specifically aimed at people like Bonnie: "Raising our Children's Children," by Deborah Doucette-


The Internet was easier for Bonnie in some ways. She could access it from home, when the girls were busy with other activities. A quick Google search for "raising grandchildren" yields 644,000 hits, fertile ground for this Internet-savvy grandma.

As Bonnie surfed the Web, she compiled and collected. She made lists and sent away for pamphlets and brochures. She found free information about keeping kids off drugs, helping your children learn science and math, and educational strategies from the No Child Left Behind Web site.

The more she learned about older adults raising young children, the more she wanted to help. In October, she created a Web site that made all the things she had gathered for herself available to anyone. She was becoming a resource for others just like her, but it still wasn't enough.

Reaching out

One of the first things Bonnie did when the girls moved in was to find a church where the three of them could find a spiritual home. She found Community Church of the Nazarene, 8440 Spring St., and through them she found her


Bonnie put her name on a list at church, and wrote that she wanted to start a support group for grandparents raising their grandchildren. She started by talking to her pastor, the Rev. Ralph Scherer, about her idea. She also talked with fellow employees at St. Mary's Medical Center, a place that encourages volunteer work in the community.

Support networks at work and church "gave me the courage to start," Bonnie said.

She went with her son Michael to Next Generation Now, 1220 Mound Ave., where he was taking a parenting class, and mentioned her idea to staff there. They liked it, and she started working with family advocate Diane Gautsch to create Racine Kin Connection. The monthly support group's first meeting was in January. Next Generation Now gives them space for the meetings, provides a light dinner and offers free child care so the adults can talk.

Word about the group spread slowly, and the responsibilities of caring for their grandchildren can keep people from even being able to attend. But a few women keep coming back.

"It takes someone special," Gautsch said, "not only to find things herself, but to then want to share them with other people."

Learning together

Three people came to the April meeting, and they had a lot to talk about.

Problems with biting, with temper tantrums, night terrors, bullying younger siblings. Even as the women talk about their frustrations and how much of a struggle it can be to work through their grandchildren's problems, they speak with tenderness. They try to reconcile the parenting they did when their children were young, decades ago, with the kind of parenting society thinks is right today.

Discipline methods that were acceptable when they were parents for the first time are no longer appropriate. And reacting too harshly with emotionally vulnerable children can backfire.

Bonnie told the group of how she was recently able to wait out a temper tantrum instead of using a bribe or just giving in, something she had done not too long ago.

The grandparents are learning what works best with the children they are now responsible for. Each month when they come together, they learn from each others' successes and failures.

The support group helps people avoid the isolation that can creep up on older adults who find themselves caring for young children.

"Friends, do they want to play bridge with a 2-year-old around?" Gautsch said. "Then they end up losing touch with people they associated with. They have to find people in their situation, and they find mothers who are very young, or they become isolated."

Bonnie could never thrive in isolation. The Web site and support group lets her reach out to other older adults and keeps her connected to her peers while helping the girls.

Patience and grace

Living with Bonnie, in her home filled with love and care, has been good for Alyssa and Leanna, said the Rev. Scherer, pastor at the family's church.

"We've had the blessing of journeying through their lives," he said. "It's neat to watch the unfolding of more of the beauty of the personality of the children."

They engage other children more and more often as the months go by, Scherer said. The girls are finding stability in Bonnie's home, something Scherer credits to Bonnie's inner strength and grace.

"There is obviously a level of maturity and life experience for her as a `parent' that is not innate in those of us who are parents for the first time," he said. "Her patience with the grandchildren - most of us as parents don't intuitively have that. She brings something to the table most of us don't have clue about."


Bonnie wants her granddaughters to remember her the way she remembers her grandparents. She played school with one grandmother, and heard stories of what it was like in a one-room schoolhouse. She slept over at her grandparents' home, always a special treat. They taught her how to grow a garden, how to pick fruit off trees and make homemade ice cream. To cool off on hot summer nights, her grandfather took her out for root beer and a drive around Wind Point.

"I want all my grandkids to have good memories of how I had time to spend with them, too," she said.

Every year before Christmas she invites her grandchildren over to bake cookies. The youngest ones decorate the Santas and snowmen with gobs of super-sweet frosting and decorations. As they get older they take time to carefully craft their holiday cookies with creative design and color choices.

Living with Leanna and Alyssa has given Bonnie the chance to learn more about them than she would have if they only came to visit. "They like their backs rubbed, they like massages," Bonnie said. "Alyssa is our girly-girl. Leanna is a leader."

Alyssa, 6, keeps her hair long, and tucks flyaway strands behind her ear. She shows her collection of figurines to visitors, pointing out her favorites in the corner curio cabinet.

Leanna, 9, is a little mother, watching out for her sisters and brother, especially when they are outside the house. She praises their drawings and kisses her little brother on the top of his head.

Just like her grandparents before her, Bonnie passes her knowledge on to the girls. She's teaching them to cook and bake, and she shares her love of geology with them. They like hunting rocks, just like she does.


In late March she takes the girls to the beach near the Shoop Park Golf Course to look for fossils.

"Grandma, come on!" Alyssa shouts as she and her sister run ahead on the sand.

Much of what the girls pick up on these outings Bonnie calls "levarite" - fossil-hunter shorthand for "leave it right where it is."

The girls start a contest - whoever finds the prettiest rock wins - but don't follow through on it. They stand on the rocks at the water's edge, squealing as it splashes up toward their feet.

Waves kick up golf balls from beneath the pier, and the bobbing balls catch the girls' eyes. Leanna braves the frigid water to rescue the balls, chasing the retreating waves to get some for her sisters as well as herself.

Bonnie pulls Leanna close for a hug.

"Kids should be with their parents when they can," Bonnie says, watching as the girls play at the water's edge. "When they can't, they have grandparents."


Load comments