Florida's known for its retirees. Sunny beaches, golf courses and warm weather lure the over 60 crowd with the hopes of a recreational life. But for some Florida seniors, this is not reality. In this state, 150,000 grandparents are raising their grandchildren.
"My retirement was going to be much different — I had plans to do this and do that," said Orlando resident Yvonne Friend.
But once she retired, her life changed. Friend raised her great granddaughter from birth to 6 years old. The mother never gave her any money, and the father was not involved. Two years ago, she went through a tough time financially. The child's mother wouldn't sign over custody, so Friend couldn't get housing assistance. She started paying rent with her credit card and got deep into debt.
"It was a struggle to try to clothe and feed her," she said.
When she finally gave up her home, she gave up her granddaughter, too. Ciera went back to her mother.
"It was hard for both of us — the day that she left me we cried," Friend said. "It was like I had her myself."
Friend was one of a dozen grandmothers gathered at the Rock Lake Community Center in Orlando for a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren on April 26. Nonprofit group Informed Families organizes the meetings. Employees host educational speakers, guide talks about wellness and helping the community, as well as take the women shopping, out to eat and to the movies.
Program facilitator Sharon Warner said that the grandmothers' situations are all different, but a lot of them end up taking care of their grandchildren because of the parents' drug use.
This was the case for Rounette Fulse, 80, who raised a 22-year-old and is currently raising her 16-year-old grandson. Her daughter was on drugs and living in a house with other drug addicts when Jalen, 16, was 2. Fulse got the police involved and took over custody of the children then. Things were hard, but Fulse was determined to give Jalen a good life.
"Even with all the difficulties, I put the baby first," she said. "He wasn't responsible for what he was going through."
She also had to adapt to the new parenting ideals.
"The times were so different for when I was raising Jalen, from when I was raising my children; now there's no spanking and scolding," she laughed.
Fulse took parenting classes at Valencia Community College, but the support group also offers help in this area. At a certain age, disciplining becomes more difficult.
"When you're older, you don't have that kind of energy, so some need other ideas to circumvent some behaviors," said Diane Payne, assistant facilitator.
While grandparents do have some struggles, the experience of the child isn't necessarily different or worse from a child raised by their parents, said Kimberly Renk, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida's psychology department.
The grandmothers are generally happy to take care of their grandchildren.
"The grandchildren bring movement and life into the home," Payne said.
Fulse thinks she successfully raised Jalen. He has a job, works at his church and plays on the Boone High School football team. He hopes to be a professional football player and Fulse said she encourages him all the way. His mother has lived with them for the past year and is helping to raise him.
For Friend, the ending isn't so happy. She worries about Ciera and looks to the day she can pay off her debt and get a place of her own, one to share with her granddaughter. To those who tell her to give up, she talks about the day Ciera was born.
"Other kids have fathers and mothers — this child has no one; ever since the day she opened her eyes she's been looking at me."