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Baby bottles, diapers and day care. These are things Melissa Walker thought she was done with. She and her husband, George, have an 11-year-old son, Jeremy. She also has two stepchildren who are in their 20s and do not live at home.
But about two years ago, the family dynamic changed when they began raising their granddaughter, Audrey, who is now 2 1/2 years old.
“The way I look at it, your door should always be open for a child,” Melissa said. “I don’t know how you couldn’t always rearrange things to make room for a child in need, especially if it’s someone in your own family.
She and her husband have permanent custody of Audrey.
“Our plans are to take care of Audrey as long as she needs to be taken care of and just hope that maybe one day she will be able to be a part of her mother’s life because every child needs to be a part of their mother’s life, their father’s life,” Melissa said. “We want what’s best for Audrey, and, hopefully, one day that will be having her mother in her life too.”
Taking care of a toddler while balancing full-time jobs and taking care of a sixth grader has been a challenge for the couple. Melissa is the head custodian at Cartmell Elementary, and George is the head custodian at Carroll County High School.
Melissa said she gets up at 5 a.m., drinks some coffee and tries to get a few things done before waking Audrey. George goes to work at 6 a.m. and then returns at 7 a.m. to take their son to the bus stop and their granddaughter to Early Head Start. He leaves at 2:30 p.m. to pick up the children and then returns to work to make up the time he has left. Melissa works from 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and then heads home to take care of the children.
Given their situation, working in the school system has been very beneficial for both Melissa and her husband. “It seems like no one is more understanding about how you need to meet your child’s needs,” she said.
She said both Cartmell Principal Doug Oak and high school Principal John Leeper have been very understanding and accommodating when Audrey is sick or needs to go to day care. “I don’t know if you worked in a factory setting or in other places that you would have that.”
The Walkers also are currently caring for their nephew, who is 7. However, Melissa said she hopes this will be more of a temporary situation until his mom gets back on her feet.
“It’s still a little bit of a switch-er-roo to try and get everything done, but that way we can maintain our dayshift and be at home with the kids at night,” she said. “It’s a balancing act. I’m trying to make sure I don’t take away from my 11-year-old and that he’s got his parents at home and gets help with his homework and is getting all his attention and his needs are being met and he doesn’t feel pushed aside. And then make sure that Audrey is being taken care of and her needs are being met and she is getting all the attention she wants because you know two-and-a-half year olds want a lot of attention. And at the same time give my nephew what he needs.”
Melissa said she doesn’t know what they would do if they didn’t have Early Head Start. “It gives her a chance to learn to socialize, and they’ve done so much with her. … We didn’t plan on being in our 40s and having a toddler. It’s a big change.”
Melissa said the hardest thing for her and George has been saying ‘no’ to their granddaughter. “Being grandparents, you don’t want to be the disciplinarian,” she said. “I want to be the grandparent that spoils them and sends them home. But we’re kind of being pushed to ‘OK we’ve got to get a grip because if we don’t discipline, then she’s going to take over.’ I’ve really been trying to work on letting her know what she can do and what she can’t do, trying to reel her in a little bit.”
Melissa said, at first, her son was not too thrilled about the new addition to the family. He has a step-brother and step-sister, both in their 20s, so “he was used to having the run of the place,” she said. “I’ve had people say, ‘It’s not fair to Jeremy’ … I don’t think it’s really hurt him. I think he’s learning to share his space, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing for a kid to have to learn.”
While he has his good days and his bad days, Melissa said Jeremy has told her that he is glad they are taking care of Audrey. “I have noticed that there are times when he really feels proud when Audrey sits in his lap and says, ‘That’s my uncle JJ.’ … For the most part I think he realizes that it’s something we have to do, and he benefits from it too, because he’s setting an example for her and she looks up to him and makes him feel like big man on campus.”
The Walkers are not the only ones in the community who have begun caring for additional family members. A new organization called Relatives Raising Relatives had its first meeting May 3 and will meet the first Thursday of the month at Carroll County Middle School. Melissa said she was excited about attending the meetings. “I wanted to meet more people. I knew we weren’t the only ones; we couldn’t be,” she said with a laugh. “But sometimes you feel like you’re the only one. Even the people who are still raising their children that are little. You kind of forget as years get old, just how stressful it was.”
Champions for a Drug Free Carroll County, Family Ties, Youth Services and Lighthouse sponsored the group, which provides child care during the meeting and will feature a guest speaker each month. County Attorney Nick Marsh was the first speaker and offered free legal advice to attendees.
“I thought it was very good of Mr. Marsh to give his time to come in and answer our questions, and he did help to clear up a lot of questions I had on different programs and what his office does and doesn’t do and who you need to call for different needs that you have,” Melissa said. She said caring for Audrey has been hard, but “it’s been very rewarding because when she looks up at you and says ‘That’s my Mamaw’ or ‘I love you, Mamaw’ and you’re thinking I would just do anything in the world for this child.”
Melissa said Audrey has brought a lot of joy into their home.
“In ways I think God has provided,” she said. “It’s like he doesn’t give you any more than you can handle. That’s kind of how I look at it. He knows that we can handle it.”