Once Grandma, Now Mama: The Story of a Connectedly GrandFamily

By Stefanie Arck-Baynes-

Sheila Johnson’s ‘grandfamily’ was born more than two decades ago, when she was in her 50s. 

“My oldest grandchild is 24, so it kind of began when she came into the world. Then she had two siblings,” Sheila recalls. “When they came into my care, I had no idea what to do.”

Currently, there are an estimated 2.7 million grandfamilies – or a family where the grandparent is raising one or more grandchildren – in the country. But when Sheila’s grandchildren came to live with her, this situation was not common. And, without the internet, or cell phones, it was also very lonely.

Fortunately, Sheila found SOWN – now Connectedly – either from the phone book or her social worker. Connectedly offered resources and groups in which grandfamilies could talk and connect. 

“It was therapy. Dressed up therapy. There were 8-10 of us and we introduced ourselves and talked about how many grandchildren we were raising and we got to know each other intimately,” Sheila says. “I’m still friends with them to this day.”

This group became her family. The main support on which she relied. Because, as Sheila says, “there’s no book for this. No rules. Help comes from experience.”

She’s been with Connectedly – and these women, some in their 90s – ever since.

“I thank God for these women who had that lived experience to help me get through.”

In addition to the connection to others which is crucial, and a unique facet of Connectedly’s program, the GrandFamily Resource Center provides help navigating the court system, tech education, literacy sessions, and healthy eating groups. When possible, they also provide emergency assistance, like help finding a crib, clothes, and food, as many of the Grands are retired and/or on a fixed budget. Or have to stop working to manage their new family responsibilities.

“When you become the head of a grandfamily, it’s your new career. It’s a commitment. Commitment of joy. Commitment of pain. And you have to put yourself on the back burner. I was going to go back to school. I’ve had to downsize my car. It is a very different life.”

She agreed to share her story in hopes that she might be able to help others. “That’s what part of my new journey is going to be – I’m paying it forward.”

But she, and she says the others, too, wouldn’t change a thing.

“Whatever went down the pike is not the kids’ fault… but they have to know that someone is there to love and nurture them.” That’s where Sheila, and 17,000 other grandparents in Philadelphia come in.

When asked how she introduces herself, or who she is now, Sheila smiles:

“I’m ‘Mama’ first and foremost. Though my government name is Sheila E. Johnson. I’m the loving grandparent of three amazing children– they are the love of my life and if I had to do it all over again I would.”

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