Fifteen-year-old Dani Jasso and her twin sister went to live with their grandmother Laura Jasso, a founder of Arizona Grandparent Ambassadors, when they were five years old, after enduring neglect and abuse at the hands of mentally-unstable parents.
Dani speaks quietly and hunches her shoulders, but she’s brave, no doubt, and tells her story to raise awareness about the importance of supporting grandparents raising their grandchildren.
“Living with our grandma is more than we could have ever hoped for,” Dani said. “Ten, or even four years ago, I never would have imagined I’d be doing the things I’m doing today, like marching band.”
Arizona Representatives Raúl Grijalva and Martha McSally are teaming up to introduce a resolution, declaring September to be National Kinship Caregivers month, in order to help raise awareness and remove barriers for grandparents caring for grandchildren.
“We all need to do our part to let people know they’re not alone, that there’s wingmen and wingwomen out there, and to support them,” McSally said.
She said supporting grandparents is not only the right thing to do, but having fewer children in the foster system also saves taxpayers money and is better for the children.
“Think about what these grandparents are doing,” McSally added. “It’s time to enjoy your retirement. It’s time to enjoy a different season in your journey, and all of a sudden, you’re changing diapers and chasing around toddlers.”
Grijalva said grandparents raising grandchildren should have access to the same resources as traditional families, such as adequate health insurance for the children and grandparents.
“These are babies that deserve what my grandbabies are seeing in their life,” Grijalva said. “No less, no more—the same opportunities, the same comfort, the same sense of security that all children have.”
The Arizona Grandparent Ambassadors was founded by a group of grandmothers raising grandchildren. The organizations is a support, education and advocacy network, working out of the KARE Center.
Over 2.6 million children nationwide are being raised by their grandparents. This is in part due to the opioid crisis leaving people unable to raise their children.
Ann Nichols with the Grandparent Ambassadors said the group has been dubbed BAGs—bad ass grandmas. And they really know the struggles and triumphs that comes with raising grandchildren.
“We know the importance of kinship families because the trauma the children have gone through is reduced when they’re able to be placed in a system they know with family they know rather than going into strangers’ homes,” she said.
Andrea Zukowsky is raising four grandchildren, whom she rescued from abuse and neglect. The youngest one, she’s had since the baby was six weeks old.
“I have used up the little money that my husband left me, emptied all my savings,” she said. “My only income now to raise these children is my widow’s benefit. It’s hard.”
Finding the Grandparent Ambassadors has helped her. There’s a support group, and the KARE Center has helped her get home repairs done, understand the legal system, and they have even gone to court with her. She attended parenting classes at the center and took courses on attaining guardianship and adoption.
Her grandchildren have some issues, such as migraines and learning delays. Zukowsky is teaching the baby, now 17-months-old, sign language. She laughs lovingly while talking about how the baby doesn’t always do the correct signs.
Zukowsky has been falling lately because she’s always in a hurry to get everything done for the kids. She even had a concussion and fractured a rib. But she didn’t let that stop her because she’s a mom, she said. And her grandkids really have become her own children.
After the Arizona Department of Child Safety placed the kids with her, the department only gave her $30 a month, she said. And even that stopped after she attained guardianship.
“Mentally, I’m always on edge,” she said. “I’m always wondering, how am I going to make it through? How am I going to get presents for the kids, for Christmas, for their birthdays?”
She wishes that DCS would have helped her more, that they even would have just given her a handbook telling her what to do. It was through one of her grandkids’ teachers that she found out about the Grandparents Ambassadors and the KARE Center.
She said the kids are doing a lot better now. One of them has raised his grades from Ds and Fs to As and Bs. Another had frequent emotional outbursts that have greatly improved, and another is receiving speech and physical therapy.
“I love my grandkids,” she said. “I want them to be good citizens, good people. I will do anything for them. They come first and foremost. All our children do.”
With the Children’s Action Alliance, the Grandparent Ambassadors have developed an instruction booklet for grandparents raising grandchildren to help them know what options and support is available to them. To find out more go to facebook.com/azgrandparents or visit the KARE Center at 220 E. Speedway Blvd.
“Sometimes I wish it could be different,” Dani said. “Since I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized it was for the best. I miss my mom and wish she could see some of the stuff I’m doing today. But I know she can’t, and that’s OK because I know in my heart that I’m going to do good things one day.”