Photos by Sean Gasser.

Thousands of grandparents in Louisiana are raising their grandkids. This nonprofit wants to help

Some might joke about suffering from a midlife crisis. But for Kathy Coleman, it was all too real.

Around 2010, when Coleman was approaching 50, she became the full-time caretaker of her five grandchildren. Their mother, Coleman’s daughter, was unable to care for her children ranging in ages 5 to 12.

Between the logistics and the financial stress of raising the five kids, coupled with the emotional toll of separating them from their mother, the burden became too much for Coleman to bear.

“I thought I was losing my mind,” she says today.

That’s when Coleman’s attorney introduced her to Dot Thibodeaux, the founder of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren of Louisiana (GRG).

Thibodeaux found herself raising her teenage grandson on her own in the ’90s. Looking for support and community, she and Dana Spayd—a fellow grandmother raising a grandchild—founded the network and nonprofit in 1993. It’s been meeting on the fourth Thursday of every month since, gathering grandparents caring for their grandchildren. The children’s parents face challenges like addiction, incarceration, mental health issues and more.

Kathy Coleman is the president and driving force behind Grandparents Raising Grandchildren of Louisiana. The organization coordinates monthly support meetings on East Airport Drive and quarterly legal workshops at the Main Library at Goodwood.

The Baton Rouge-headquartered organization works closely with other local nonprofits to help grandparents across the state with everything from diapers to legal support.

For Coleman, who was raised by her grandmother, the group guided her through the darkest times of her life, particularly as she fought to gain custody of her grandchildren.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life was going into court to protect my grandchildren that made it appear I was against my daughter. But I wasn’t against my daughter,” she says. “As a grandparent, as you go into court, it devastates you. When I looked across that court room I still saw my baby girl.”

Through the years and throughout the ups and downs, Coleman and Thibodeaux became “inseparable.” After Thibodeaux died in 2019, Coleman stepped up to lead the organization that had given her so much.

“When (Dot) passed I said, ‘I will remain as long as the mission is what Dot prepared,’” Coleman says.

And while the organization has stayed true to that mission, in the last few years Coleman and her team of volunteers have also pushed it to new heights, bringing more services, benefits and even funds to local grandfamilies.

Custody and challenges

In Louisiana, about 55,000 grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren, and about 61,000 children are being raised by family members other than their parents.

There are benefits for children living in grandfamilies and with relatives. Children report they are more likely to “always feel loved” than if they were in foster care with non-relatives. There are better educational outcomes. Children are less likely to re-enter foster care.

But taking on long-term care of a grandchild presents grandparents with many challenges, too.

“Grandparents say, ‘I can’t afford to take the kids, but morally I can’t afford not to,’” Coleman explains.

She estimates 90% of GRG participants live below the poverty line, and many have retired and are living on a fixed income. In addition to the daily expenses of raising children, grandparents must also often take on costly legal fees to gain custody of their grandchildren. Without custody, grandparents cannot receive monthly kinship care subsidies from the state, and they face difficulties bringing the children to medical appointments and even enrolling them in school.

Frances Cain holds her grandchild’s hand. She has gained custody of two of her grandchildren and cares for another child with cerebral palsy.

GRG works to offset some of those costs through regular food and supplies drives and occasional access to emergency funds. It also helps connect grandparents with attorneys at its monthly support groups and quarterly legal workshops at the Main Library at Goodwood.For grandmother and GRG member Frances Cain, 71, it took more than seven years to gain custody of her two grandchildren. She began raising them when they were 6 months and 1 year old, after both their parents were incarcerated.

She says she was forced to retire from her long-time job as a bus driver to care for the children.

“I had to rearrange my life,” Cain says.

But the community and support from GRG helped get her through.

“They helped me with food, diapers … anything I actually needed I could go to them if I didn’t have somebody else to help me with it,” she says. “They give you a lot. They build you up.”

Grandfamilies also face emotional and physical challenges.

Patti Sanders, 70, is a cancer survivor who has raised her now-9-year-old granddaughter since the child’s mother died in 2015.

“Your family and friends are expecting you to be this retired person, but you are mama again,” Sander says. “You have homework and carpool and sports. … Some friends say, ‘I would not do it.’ But you do do it. You see that face and you think, where would they be?

Still, Sanders says her age and side effects from chemo did not make it an easy road. Initially, she came to GRG for help on how to manage an active toddler in her 60s. The group helped her install baby gates and learn new strategies. But Sanders says she’s gained so much more than she expected.

In the years since she joined GRG, Sanders’ son and husband have died. GRG has helped connect her and her granddaughter with grief counselors and has been there for Sanders personally.

“If it’s not monetary stuff, it’s just reaching out and saying ‘I’m thinking of you and I’m praying for you,’” she says. “That really makes a difference.”

Making milestones

In 2023, Coleman and her team spent $40,000 to place billboards across Louisiana to raise awareness about GRG. The response was, according to Coleman, “unreal.”

Calls to GRG’s 1-800 number doubled last year and came from almost every corner of the state. About 70% of calls into the state’s DCFS Kinship Navigator Program last year we also directed there through GRG, according to Coleman.

Frances Cain, Kathy Coleman and Patti Sanders. Cain and Sanders are members of GRG who are currently raising their grandchildren.

“That’s not too shabby for a little nonprofit office,” she says.

GRG now hosts quarterly support groups and serves grandfamilies from Shreveport to Houma. Coleman even loads up a trailer of groceries and supplies and drives items to grandfamilies in rural areas around the state. The trailer is nicknamed after her own grandmother, Ruby Ray.

Perhaps most importantly, GRG also played an instrumental role in working with DCFS last year to raise kinship care subsidies in Louisiana from $222 a month per child to $450 a month per child.

But there’s still work to be done. As Coleman puts it, she won’t stop until “all of our babies are adequately served.”

These days, Coleman’s grandchildren have their mother back in their lives, and the youngest is nearing graduation at LSU. She’s so proud of what her grandchildren have overcome, but she acknowledges not all is resolved.

“Families have issues that sometimes you can’t work out,” she says. “What do you do? You step up and do what’s best for the children.” 

This article was originally published in the March 2024 issue of 225 magazine.