WOODSTOCK – As grandparents across the country continue to take on the responsibilities of raising their grandchildren, a group in Shenandoah County has stepped up to help.

Shelia Helsley started Grandparents As Parents of Shenandoah County (GAP), a group that helps provide support, information, and guidance to meet the needs of grandparents and other relatives raising children.

“My basic desire was to have everyone be together and to know there are other grandparents like us,” she said. “We’re supportive. We text each other and send each other messages of encouragement.”

Helsley is a grandmother who adopted her granddaughter Lexi when she was 2 years old, and grandson Dylan, when he was 11 months old. Helsley said she was part of the Grand Parenting Education and Support program in Rockingham County and that program led her to found GAP.

“When we moved to Shenandoah County, there wasn’t anything like that,” Helsley said. “I had put some feelers out. In January 2018, we had our first planning meeting, which involved a lot of my friends – some of them didn’t have children of their own, much less grandchildren. Some of them were in the same position I was.”

Helsley said that the group held its first meeting in March 2018. She said 20 grandparents attended early on.

“It varies based on who’s available,” Helsley said. “I probably talk to two or three grandparent families during the month. I may never see any of them, but we’ve made a connection on the phone.”

Helsley said that many of the grandparents who become parents to their grandchildren do so to keep them out of foster care.

“What we do, I feel like, is a tremendous gift, money-wise, to the state of Virginia because we’re taking on that responsibility and we certainly don’t want to see the kids in foster care,” she said.

GAP meetings feature guest speakers, question and answer sessions, and grandparent sharing sessions. Helsley said the GAP meetings are a time for grandparents to relax a little.

“After all this time, what blows my mind is we’re strangers, but we’re all connected by something very special,” Helsley said. “We talk about really hurtful, sensitive and embarrassing things. We talk about things we have no idea how we’re going to handle or pay for. It’s amazing – all of us together find the answers.”

Tracey Hurd, one of the grandparents in GAP, has been raising her grandson Gabriel for the last six years after she sought emergency custody from her daughter, who is a heroin addict.

“We got him and took him back to Virginia the same day we got custody, and we’ve been raising him ever since,” she said.

Hurd said that, before she got custody, Gabriel was in child protective services.

“He still remembers living with CPS, and he didn’t know those people,” she said. “He still brings it up out of the blue once a year. He says ‘Do you remember those people in the van who took me from my mommy?’”

Hurd said that the transition from grandmother to parent has been challenging.

“I can have the most money in the world or the nicest house and I’m still not mom,” she said. “I’m grandma. I don’t get to spoil him. It’s tough.”

Hurd joined GAP in March 2018.

“I moved to Shenandoah County that January and I talked to social services about programs for Gabriel,” she said. “Someone suggested that there was a brand new group, and that’s when I met Shelia.”

Hurd credited Helsley and GAP for helping her through her situation and through her difficult relationship with her daughter.

“When I cry, Gabe suffers,” she said. “Shelia’s taught me I may have to let [her daughter] go and raise him.”

Hurd said the group has also been helpful for her grandson.

“For Gabe, it’s hard because he doesn’t have his mom,” she said. “After the first meeting, he kept asking: ‘When are we going back to the grandparents meeting?’ He felt like he belonged, and that’s a big thing. We went to Walmart one time and he said: ‘There’s that kid from the meeting. He’s just like me.’”

Helsley encourages grandparents who are going through similar experiences to join GAP.

“Everyone there has been where they are,” she said. “No matter where it is in the process, everyone there at the meeting has been in their situation. It’s all confidential. Nothing leaves that room. It’s a warm and inviting environment. It’s a safe place.”

The group meets from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the second Monday of the month. For more information on GAP, visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/GAPofShenco.

– Contact Donald Lambert at dlambert@nvdaily.com