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Grandmother
of the year

Like 100,000 grandparents in Georgia,
Loretta Jenkins is raising grandchildren,
and every day is a challenge.

Wake up!

Loretta Jenkins heard a voice rousing her.

She sat up in bed in her Coweta County home where she lived alone.

She waited. Silence.

Drowsy and confused, she put her head back on her pillow.

Wake up! the voice said again.

She sat up again, wide awake.

Her boys leapt to mind. She’d been worried sick about 8-year-old Markey and 6-year-old Maleak, her two oldest grandchildren. Jenkins heard the voice a third time.

Maleak!

That was it. A devout Christian, Loretta believed it was the voice of God, telling her to go find the boys. They must be in danger.

She jumped out of bed, threw on a dress and grabbed photographs of her grandsons from her dresser.

Something told her the kids were in trouble. She’d been worried sick about her daughter, whom Loretta said had fallen in with what she called “a bad crowd.”

It was 4 a.m.

She got into her car and drove to Newnan, where she had grown up and raised her four children. She knew the good and the bad parts of town, and she knew her daughter was not going to be in a good part.

Loretta steered her Ford Escort into an area of town she knew to be a drug haven, where sellers openly traded their poison to the desperate and the addicted.

She drove to the ramshackle house where her daughter and two boys had last lived, where she had pleaded with her daughter to let the boys come live with her. Her daughter had refused.

The house was vacant.

Loretta drove slowly by. It was still dark when she saw a man on a street corner.

“Do you know Shantrez?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” and on she drove.

She saw another man.

“I’m looking for my grandsons,” she told him, pulling out the photos.

The guy directed her to a house on a nearby street.

When she drove up, she thought this house looked vacant, too. But as the headlights of her car shined on the dirt and weeds that passed for a lawn, she noticed an extension cord toward the back of the house. It appeared to run to the house next door.

She stopped the car and went up to the front door. It was unlocked. She walked in. No one was there, only discarded paper cups, 
crumpled sacks and dust balls.

She turned to walk away. But as she did, she noticed a slice of light coming from a back room.

She tip-toed toward it, her heart pumping so hard it was louder than her footsteps.

What if it wasn’t her daughter? What if it was someone with a gun? What if she scared him, and he shot her?

She couldn’t see anything except the beam of light sliding out from under the door.

Another step. This time, the floor creaked beneath her foot. Whoever was in the room now knew Loretta was in the house.

The door cracked open. Her daughter peeked out.

Mama, I got a problem, said Shantrez, tears streaming down her face. Please, take my boys. I messed up.

Loretta grabbed the boys, who had been standing there watching their mother with frozen looks of pain and confusion on their faces.

It’s gonna be OK, babies, Loretta said, crying. Grandmama’s got you. It’s going to be OK.

That night, Jenkins, 52, became one of more than 100,000 grandparents in Georgia who are raising grandchildren.

Photo: Loretta gets a hug from her mother Cora Cook at the conclusion of worship service.


2
Growing family
Growing up in Coweta County, Loretta didn’t have a lot of dreams for herself except to survive.

A ketchup sandwich was often dinner, and a banana sandwich was a special treat. Sometimes, there was no food at all.

“At night we couldn’t wait to get to school because we know we’d get food,” she recalled.

She and her brother went door to door, asking people if they could rake yards for money.

Some people would scowl and slam the door in the kids’ faces.

“We’d just drop our heads and go on to the next house,” she said.

Even so, her mother never turned a child away from her door who needed safe haven. Loretta vowed she would never watch children go hungry or in need.

Loretta spent much of her time in church but admits to finding time to “get sneaky” when she became a teen.

“My mama always said, ‘If you get sneaky, you’re gonna have the baby. There won’t be abortions in this house,’” Loretta said.

She had her first child, a girl, when she was 16. She named the baby Nicole. Then came a second daughter, Shawanda, born just a few weeks before Loretta graduated high school.

The three moved into an apartment, despite her mother’s pleas to stay with her.

“I didn’t want to put that on my mama,” Loretta said.

She held various odd jobs, sometimes working two jobs to make ends meet. She got a break when she took a job as a cook at a Newnan restaurant. She dredged fish and shrimp through gooey batter, then plopped them into baskets to be plunged into sizzling hot oil.

The work wasn’t much fun, but it paid the bills. She didn’t like her boss, who sometimes used the “n” word, she said. Afraid to speak up for fear of being fired, she tolerated the slurs.

Soon after she turned 20, Loretta had a son, Rolando.
Eventually Loretta and her boss had a falling out and Loretta lost her job. But she quickly found a new one with Kason Industries, where she manufactured refrigerator parts.

“The Good Lord was watching out for me,” she said.

Then came baby number four, Shantrez. Loretta was just 21.

Her mother helped out, babysitting the children when Loretta was at work. The children’s fathers were not in the picture. But she met a man at church who wanted to marry her — Adrian Jenkins.

“We really were just friends,” Loretta said.

Church members chipped in and paid for a wedding. The pastor’s mother made the wedding dress, and several people brought food for a reception. Jenkins’ two older girls served as bridesmaids and the youngest was the flower girl.

Everybody was happy. Except Loretta’s children.

“They were crying. They weren’t having it,” Loretta said.
Loretta and Adrian stayed married two years.

It was not such a big loss, she said. They had started as friends and ended as friends.

Life returned to normal for Loretta and the four children.

She continued to work at Kason, but she began falling asleep on the assembly line.

After a boss encouraged she get checked out, Loretta was diagnosed with narcolepsy. No longer able to work, she was placed on disability.

Minister Diana Stewart (from left), Deacon George Reed, Loretta, and Rev. D. E. Chamblin, Sr., join hands for prayer in the pastor's office before entering St. John Baptist Church to lead worship.

3

Something wasn’t right
When her grandsons arrived at Loretta’s house that day in 2006, she — like many grandparents in Georgia who suddenly find themselves raising grandchildren — was thrust into a complex world, navigating state agencies, caring for children with profound behavioral issues and trying to provide for her charges on a fixed income.

But the boys were happy to be there. The lights were on. She had clean, comfortable beds for them with pillows. There was food.

Still, something wasn’t right, Loretta thought. The boys were quiet. Maybe too quiet.

Markey clung to his coat, even though it was summer time. He was so attached to the garment, Loretta couldn’t get it away from him, even when he slept — under the bed, not on it. He didn’t talk very much. Maleak was quiet, also.

Then, he started having outbursts.

“He would just bust out crying for no reason,” Loretta said. She recalled Shantrez telling her that Maleak had been hit on the head once with a metal pipe. Loretta wondered if he had brain damage as a result.

She started the legal process of getting temporary guardianship of the boys and was surprised to learn it would cost more than $150 for each one. She didn’t have that kind of money. Without guardianship, she couldn’t take the boys to the doctor or consult with school officials on their behalf.

She was relieved to learn the fee could be waived.

She took the boys to the doctor as soon as she could. After weeks of appointments and testing, Markey was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, dyslexia, a speech impairment and depression. Maleak was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Both the boys had learning disabilities.

Then, Markey began exhibiting bizarre behavior. At odd times and in odd places, he would take off running.

Loretta was puzzled.

He began running between classes at school. If a schoolmate made him mad, he’d take off.

At first, the other students laughed at Markey when he would sprint by.

“They called him ‘Running Markey,’” Loretta said.

But the school administrators were not amused. They called Loretta to complain. Between the jacket, which was getting dirty, and the running, Markey was disruptive at school.

“They would call and talk to me and tell me he was a danger. For the first three months, they were real concerned.”

Loretta tried to explain. That’s just what he does, she told them.

As time passed, the teachers and students came to accept Markey’s running.

But when it came to Markey and Maleak’s learning disabilities, some teachers were more understanding than others.

“Sometimes they just want to push them through,” Loretta said.

Loretta gets a Sunday afternoon meal ready for her grandchildren at the family home.

Loretta stops by the grocery store with her 3-year-old granddaughter Trinity for items to make a Sunday afternoon meal for her five grandchildren after church.

Photo: Loretta joins in a closing prayer at St. John Baptist Church in Shenandoah while her 3-year-old granddaughter Trinity sleeps on the front pew one Sunday in March.


4
Making ends meet
Now that Loretta had two more mouths to feed, money was a constant challenge. She got food stamps that amounted to about $200 a month, but keeping the benefits has been difficult.

“For some reason, I get bounced off, and then I have to re-apply,” she said. “It happens all the time.”

She began receiving $150 from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), but only recently applied for a subsidy from DFCS for grandparents raising grandchildren with disabilities. Like many grandparents in her position, she wasn’t aware the benefits were available to her.

When money is tight, she doesn’t mind going to churches to ask for food. The first Christmas she had the boys, she had no money for presents or a holiday meal. She went to an agency in Atlanta for help, but she was too late. They’d already distributed their gifts for the holidays.

Tears streaming down her face, she walked down the street to a church.

The church told her the same thing. It was too close to the holiday to help. As Loretta turned to walk out, an office worker stopped her.

Wait, give me your name and phone number. If we get any calls from people wanting to help, we’ll call you, she was told.

A few hours later, Loretta received a call from a young man named Bill Madson, a commercial real estate developer who now lives in Talking Rock. On Christmas Day he delivered gifts to the family and was charmed to find two polite little boys sitting on the couch with Loretta in their tidy home.

Occasionally Loretta would load the boys into her car and they would drive around Newnan looking for their mother, who had become homeless, Loretta said.

“When they were little, they always wanted to get food to take to her,” Loretta said. “They would just hug her.”

As the years have gone by, Maleak has lost interest in seeing his mother.

Sometimes Shantrez will call Loretta and tell her she wants help.

“She tells me where she is, and then I go over there, and she just wants money for cigarettes,” Loretta said.

But Loretta always goes.

5

Second family grows
In 2010, Loretta’s daughter Nicole and her husband Dan surprised Loretta with a vacation for her birthday. She’d never taken a vacation before. Asked where she wanted to go, her answer was immediate: Las Vegas.

On the flight out, Nicole started feeling ill. When they returned to Atlanta, she was still sick so she went to the doctor who diagnosed her with Stage IV lung cancer. She was 30.

Nicole was so distraught by the diagnosis, she couldn’t talk to Loretta about it.

“She told me she didn’t have cancer, that they had the wrong patient,” Loretta recalled.

One day when Loretta was visiting, Nicole was horrified to discover her hair was falling out.

Can I take the clippers and cut your hair? Loretta asked.

She shaved Nicole’s head, not saying a word. Afterward she went in the bathroom and cried.

“I never wanted her to see me cry. I wanted to stay strong for her,” Loretta said.

Eventually Loretta and the boys moved in with Nicole and Dan, so Loretta could help out.

“She never had a bed sore on her, that’s how good a care I took of her,” Loretta said. “I wasn’t going to let my baby suffer.”

When Nicole died in 2012, her three boys had grown so close to Loretta they wanted to live with her. So Dan bought her a two-story brick house in an aging neighborhood in south Fulton so Nicole’s boys could split their time between their Dad’s and Loretta’s. While Dan has legal custody, Loretta has power of attorney so she can take them to school and to doctors. Now Loretta was caring for five children.

Loretta drops Trinity off with her mother, Trinity’s great-grandmother, Cora Cook, on her way to Sunday school before their church service.

Photo: Loretta is a volunteer Scout leader for Cub Scout troop 7250 at Renaissance Elementary School in Fairburn.


6

Managing priorities
If Loretta’s five grandchildren were placed in foster care, the state would pay about $2,500 to their foster parents.

Because Loretta is the children’s grandmother, she receives $800 in benefits, including food stamps, TANF benefits and a disability check for Markey.

Maleak and Markey sometimes look at foster children with envy.

Last Christmas, Maleak told Loretta he wished he was a foster kid because then he could get Christmas presents like they do.

One Christmas, Loretta said a DFCS case worker told her to make a Christmas wish list for her children. Loretta was hesitant. She knew not all families get picked by the churches, charities and individuals who contact the agency seeking needy families to help. But she was delighted when she got a call saying her family had been selected.

“Ms. Jenkins, you can come pick up your canned goods,” the caller told her.

“What am I supposed to tell my babies? Give me a wish list, and you’ll get canned goods?” Loretta asked, outraged.

“That’s why I tell them there’s no Santa Claus, that it’s just God and us, and that is plenty.”

Her bigger concerns are the boys’ mental and emotional health. She wants them all to get an education, to at least finish high school. This spring, her firstborn grandchild, Markey, will achieve that milestone. Through an individualized educational plan for students with disabilities at Creekside High School, Markey has managed to pass all his classes. And teachers have worked with him on controlling his impulse to run, although sometimes he still takes off.

Nana, college is knowledge, Markey told Loretta one day. I want to go.

Last year they visited Roosevelt Academy, a rehabilitation institute in Warm Springs that helps people with disabilities continue their education and find employment.

“You should have seen his eyes light up,” Loretta said.

Loretta took Markey back recently and is making plans for life beyond high school graduation.

“I think it will be good for him,” she said. “He told me when he’s busy he doesn’t think about his mama so much.”

Loretta plays ball with her 3-year-old granddaughter Trinity in the front yard of her home in March.

7

Hoping for help
By 2014, Loretta was raising two more grandchildren, Courtney, 14, and Trinity, 3, the children of Loretta’s daughter Shawanda. That fall she received an unexpected call from Project GRANDD, a program for grandparents raising grandchildren with disabilities and chronic illness. Loretta had been named Grandmother of the Year.

“I was like, ‘You’re talking about me?’” Loretta said. “Somebody’s going to give me an award?”

A party was held to celebrate her at a restaurant. Loretta kept a low profile when she arrived at the event. People kept asking where the Grandmother of the Year was. Loretta seemed so young, no one suspected her.

She recalled feasting on dumplings and quesadillas, rice and beans.

“Oh my gosh, I was so happy. I was eating myself to death. I’d never seen so much food,” she said.

When it came time to present the award, Loretta was asked to say a few words.

“I told them about what I do and how I try to help these seven kids,” she said. “People told me they thought they had it bad.”

Some of those listening were moved to tears.

The scene couldn’t have been more different at Loretta’s next public speaking engagement at Georgia State University last December. She addressed a hearing the state conducted to learn more about the challenges grandparents face raising grandchildren in Georgia.

Hundreds of grandparents spoke, complaining about the bureaucracy of dealing with DFCS and the agency’s failure to provide support. They talked about the legal red tape involved in registering children for school and taking them to the doctor without legal guardianship. They vented about the financial burden of supporting children on fixed incomes.

The loudest and most persistent requests, though, was for help caring for children who have experienced an array of adverse events, such as fetal alcohol syndrome and physical abuse. Some have witnessed drug abuse by a parent and violent acts, even murder.

“I’m trying to raise boys to be men. I’m asking for mentoring programs. I’m asking for help in the schools,” Loretta said as she addressed the panel, chaired by state Rep. Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta). “These kids are our future, and we’re fighting like crazy to help them.”

As a result of those hearings, Gov. Nathan Deal included funding in the state budget for 10 new DFCS positions dedicated to helping grandparents navigate the system. The Georgia Legislature also approved bills that created a kinship care enforcement administrator for the Department of Human Services and a separate, easier access point on the state’s website for social services specifically for grandparents and other kinship care providers.

Loretta, like many grandparents raising grandchildren in Georgia, said she doesn’t count on assistance from the state. Instead she counts on her church and people like Bill Madson, who has remained in Loretta’s life and continues to help out, although he now has three children of his own now.

“I just do it one day at a time,” she said. “God will provide. I can count on that, and nothing else.”

This report was funded by a grant from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the University of Southern California.

Behind the story

Loretta teaches Trinity how to ride her bike with training wheels at their family home after church one Sunday in March.


ABOUT THE STORY
A fellow of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism’s National Health Journalism program and a recipient of a grant from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, Virginia Lynne Anderson spent three months interviewing grandparents and experts for a series of articles for the AJC on challenges faced by kinship-care providers of minor children in Georgia. Read her earlier work on the subject here: Kinship-care providers seek assistance from state and
DFCS slow to pay kinship care providers.
She got to know Loretta Jenkins after she spoke at a state hearing on the subject at Georgia State University last year. Jenkins was among about 100 grandparents who voiced frustration with the state over a lack of support from the Department of Family and Children Services. As a result of the hearings, the Department of Family and Children Services received funding for 10 new positions to help grandparents navigate the system and a kinship care enforcement administrator position was created in the Department of Human Services during the 2016 legislative session.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER
Virginia Lynne Anderson has covered courts, sports, business, politics and medicine over her 25 years in journalism. She was the lead reporter on a six-part series on a thoroughbred breeding farm that went public and, later, bankrupt. The series was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Anderson is a native of Athens, a University of Georgia graduate and the proud mother of two lovable daughters, both lawyers.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.