Grassroots effort helps grandparent caregivers in Tennessee

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (AP) - It's a small space for a store, and with items stacked floor to ceiling, it feels even smaller.

Nestled between multiple buildings in a relatively nondescript area a couple miles from downtown Mountain City off of U.S. Highway 421, the building is one that likely goes unnoticed by the many motorists who pass it on a daily basis. Inside, the 600 square feet of space is stocked with items for those in need in Johnson County - some for sale, most for free.

Blankets, clothing, cookware, cleaning products, shoes and various food items line shelves and cover a majority of the shop's footprint, while a single set of plastic shelves just inside the doorway hold the few items that actually are for sale, all of which cost $5. Those who do notice the building probably don't give a second thought to the many items placed on and around tables outside, including non-perishable food and other items too big to fit inside.

But for those who depend on the shop's charity, its zebra-print door and muted pink window shutters represent a crucial lifeline - particularly for the more than three dozen grandparents caring for their grandchildren who rely on the shop to help make ends meet and provide the children with toys and games.

Across Tennessee it's estimated that more than 75,000 grandparents are caring for their grandchildren, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Johnson County, one of the state's most rural counties, resources to help those grandparent caregivers are few and far between save for the few grassroots organizations such as Helping Others that have stepped in where some believe the government could do more.

Since opening the shop in a storage unit in 2020, Theresa McElyea has done what she can to provide for her community, and recently distributed Valentine's Day gifts to 37 grandparents. McElyea said she was inspired to open Helping Others after seeing a social media post from somebody trying to help a family in need, and now has two storage units and a building she operates from.

"I feel bad for them," McElyea said of the grandparent caregivers that her store helps. "They should be, you know, at their older age they should be out traveling and enjoying life."

Another group that's stepped in to help support grandparent caregivers in the county is the Women of Mountain City, a non-profit group that has worked to support grandparents with weekly deliveries of hygiene products and by connecting them with other service providers. Olivia Stelter, the group's founder, said there needs to be more support for grandparent caregivers, including both financial support and, potentially, in-home programs such as therapy or support groups.

"If there just could be more support beyond a check," Stelter said, "I think any in-home program that a grandparent could sign up for would be amazing."

Financial support could be on the way in the form of a bill that would provide grandparents with a stipend equal to half the rate foster parents receive, but it is still making its way through the state legislature and would not go into effect until 2023.

Debra Greene said she connected with the Women of Mountain City through Helping Others, and joined their grandparent caregiver program. Greene, 62, said her four grandkids were placed into the care of her and her husband, 65, about three years ago after they were found abandoned by their parents. Her oldest grandson recently graduated and moved out, but three others - twin 7-year-old boys and a 10-year-old boy - remain in their care.

"We had planned to travel and do things in our golden years, and now here we are raising another family," Greene said.

Before their grandchildren came to live with them, Greene said she and her husband were doing well, had some money in savings and owned their own home and vehicles - and supported themselves with their combined disability and Social Security checks. Then, they became the guardians for four children, children she said came to them with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

And while they managed fine on their fixed income before, with four kids added to the mix the money dried up quickly. Greene said grandparent caregivers need more support and that she feels grandparents are forgotten. She added many of her friends who also care for their grandchildren don't have support, and don't know where to go to get it.

"We're here and we're trying our best and we're keeping these kids out of the foster care system," Greene said. "We're keeping them out of the system. We took it upon ourselves to raise these kids, but recognize us and give us some help."

The Women of Mountain City, however, will soon no longer be available to help people like Greene.

Citing burnout and a lack of support from local officials, organizers announced plans to close the nonprofit in June after two years of serving the community. Stelter, who stepped down as the organization's executive director last month, said it's possible it may return in the future, but for now it's become too difficult for her and her team to operate with so little support. Stelter, who was complimentary of the work their state representatives have done, took issue with what she says is a lack of support from local officials in the county and city.

"When a community isn't addressing problems, you get a nonprofit out here that earns the trust of people, and then they get bombarded," Stelter said. "My entire team has full-time jobs. We all have full-time jobs and families that we're trying to raise, too, and it's like, because our community and our elected officials have done nothing. It's strained us for so long."

Sabrina Dowell, 53, has been raising her teenage grandson since he was born due to his parent's drug addiction, and has received help from both Helping Others and the Women of Mountain City. Dowell said she's currently living with one of her adult children, and has struggled to find affordable housing for the two of them while living on her fixed income.

And though she said she wouldn't trade custody of her grandson for anything, Dowell described the situation many Johnson County grandparents face as unimaginable and said they're "struggling bad."

"It's just very difficult," she said. "With the (Social Security income) that I get, it's very difficult to make it stretch with a child - especially at my age, not able to work."

Dowell said it feels as though they're on an island compared to the rest of the state, and that it seems like people don't care - except for people like Stelter and McElyea. She believes there needs to be more resources available to help grandparents, especially those with older children who might not qualify for some programs, and that she wants local officials and politicians to see first-hand what they go through.

"See what struggles we're going through," Dowell said. "See it personally for yourself, because just standing back ... it's not working. You can hear about it all day long, but it's just not working.

"Walk a mile in my shoes and see it, you know, take a moment to really look at it," she said. "I feel like we're being missed, or just skipped over."