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It takes a Village to Advance Grandparent Rights

Countless parents find themselves in need of the proverbial village to balance the various demands of childrearing.

image gail engel

Gail Engel is a 2014 graduate of FLTI of Larimer County and the Executive Director of Grand Family Coalition, Inc.

When grandparents find themselves as the primary caregivers of their grandchildren, many discover their village is in need of exponential growth to handle the complexities of parenting the second time around.

In the fall of 2006, a small group of Larimer County grandparents sought someone to provide leadership and guidance as they looked to create community-based solutions for the complex issues facing them. They approached the Larimer County CSU Extension office for help. The late Jacque Miller, a Larimer County CSU Extension agent, was the primary staff assigned to work with the group.

Growing the Village
Miller set to work immediately, convening the Larimer County Alliance for Grandparents (LCAG) within a few short months. By early 2007, the LCAG had identified and invited key community stakeholders to join them for a strategic planning session. An article highlighting the LCAG in the Journal of Applied Gerontology recounts the meeting’s attendees as including:

… grandparents, relative caregivers, human service professionals (i.e. aging services, child support, child welfare, kinship unit, and public assistance), university faculty (i.e., from CSU Extension, CSU Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and CSU School of Social Work), mental health professionals, community educators (i.e., public school officials), and others (i.e., medical professionals),” (Fruhauf, et al., 2012, p. 198).

Colorado State University’s Dr. Christine A. Fruhauf has been involved with LCAG from the beginning, and continues to serve on the LCAG Leadership Council today. Dr. Fruhauf is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) where she directs the department’s Extension initiatives and programs. One of her areas of expertise is grandparent-grandchild relationships, including grandparents raising grandchildren. Dr. Fruhauf states, “In addition to my primary content area, I also value the role that community-based participatory research has played in my grandfamily work. Without this approach, the great work of the partners within the LCAG might not have been shared with other scholars.”

Image of LCAG members

A group of current LCAG members. Pictured here, left to right, back row: Karen McMahon, Clair Barquero, Christine Fruhauf, Nicole Vasquez, Lynette McGowan. Front row: Nancy Mendoza, Gail Engel, Sue Schneider, Suzanna Hatchler.

One of LCAG’s initial accomplishments included identifying the need for a systems navigator that could help grandparents raising grandchildren access the services needed to support their families. Through a collaborative funding agreement, resources from the various LCAG agencies helped establish a Kinship Navigator.

Equipping the Village
The Family Leadership Institute of Colorado (FLTI) is a leadership development and civic engagement initiative with the following core values: respect, validation, and community engagement. FLTI participants take part in a free, community-led 20-week training featuring an evidence-based curriculum from the National Parent Leadership Institute in Connecticut. The FLTI experience culminates in participants each designing and implementing a civic project that addresses a community need.

In 2010, Jacque Miller launched FLTI in Larimer County, encouraging the grandparents with whom she met to go through the program. Over the years, several grandparents raising kin have graduated from FLTI, some due to a prior association with LCAG, while others were new to community engagement. Regardless of how these grandparents arrived at FLTI of Larimer County, all of their civic projects brought added synergy to the foundation set by LCAG and its members. For example, in 2013 FLTI of Larimer County alumni Linda Tanner (2010) and Reggie Johnson (2012) founded the 501 (c) 4 organization now known as Kinship Family Advocacy (KFA, originally PAC-Kin) to advocate for grandparent rights laws and policies.

After working with LCAG for some time, Gail Engel completed FLTI of Larimer County in 2014. At the same time, she began her journey as director for her newly established 501 (c) 3 organization, Grand Family Coalition, Inc., (GFC). GFC exists to create “a place where grandfamilies and services connect,” and works closely with the LCAG (Engel is the current co-chair) its member agencies, as well as CSU‘s School of Social Work and HDFS faculty and students. “There is always more to be done,” Engel said in a recent interview, “so we will take volunteers however we can get them. The CSU programs we partner with have been a great help. Dr. Fruhauf’s contributions, with the student interns and the academic expertise she provides to secure funding, are invaluable.”

Moving Beyond Local Impact
Over time, the Colorado Department of Human Services developed Kinship Connection, a state-wide, collaborative network of Kinship Navigators. Engel attends these meetings on a regular basis, representing GFC initially and now LCAG as well. In October, 2017, LCAG will host the Colorado Kinship Connection meeting where presentations will focus on the accomplishments LCAG has made with its partnerships across various sectors.

Christine Fruhauf, center with plaque, receiving the 2013 Brabazon Award for Evaluation Research from Generations United for the development and evaluation of the Larimer County Alliance for Grandfamilies.

Across the country, in Washington D.C., Generations United is recognizing the caliber of the collaborative work surrounding grandfamily issues in Larimer County. Generations United operates as a charitable organization seeking to “improve the lives of children, youth, and older people through intergenerational collaboration, public policies, and programs for the enduring benefit of all.” In 2013, Generations United bestowed Fruhauf and her colleagues at CSU with the Brabazon Award for their program evaluation work with the LCAG. The Brabazon Award “honors a researcher or team of researchers whose outstanding work has advanced the understanding of intergenerational programming.” In addition, Generations United’s Grandfamilies Advocacy Network Demonstration (GrAND) includes a select group of grandparents (and other relative caregivers) who have raised children whose parents were not able to raise them. GrAND representatives are briefed frequently regarding federal policies that may affect relative caregivers; members are called upon to share their unique areas of expertise with Congress as they deliberate over proposed legislation. CDHS Kinship Unit staff, Jeannie Berzinskas, recently nominated Gail Engel for GrAND membership, resulting in Generations United appointing Engel to the network.

FLTI as the Catalyst
When Engel was asked how she thought FLTI factored into the work she has been a part of, she said, “Oh, it’s a huge part of all this. Without FLTI, we would never have seen the bigger picture, how more comprehensive policies could significantly affect us as individual grandfamilies. Some of this work, KFA and GFC… they never would have started without so many of us grandparents raising kin going through FLTI and completing our civic project requirements. FLTI helped us find our voices and realize we could talk to officials and make a difference.”

Dr. Fruhauf states, “It is a delight to see CSU touch grandfamilies in so many different ways. From CSU Extension, to CSU graduate and undergraduate student volunteers, to FLTI throughout the state our grandfamilies, are so lucky to have many opportunities to engage with CSU.”

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