With her kids grown and out of the house, Christy Czekaj was getting ready to retire the normal way. Then she and her husband became legal permanent guardians of two grandchildren and full-time day care providers for two more.
Now she has on average five therapy appointments and four kid pick-ups a week, with a probate court hearing often thrown in as well.
“I’m not retired, just regrouped,” she said.
The Czekajs’ story of remarkable love—and organization—emerged Thursday evening at the “Grandparents Raising Grandchildren” celebration, which drew two dozen participants to St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church on Whitney Avenue.
The annual event is organized by The Consultation Center, a mental health outreach arm of the Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry since 1995. The purpose is to hail the graduation, at any level, of any member of the 45 grandparent-led families it counsels.
At Thursday’s event, the Czekajs’s 5-year old grandson Jose marked his graduation from a pre-K in Woodbridge. He is set to begin the Spring Glen public school in Hamden in September.
At a table nearby, Barbara Wells and her grandson Jay’son also marked a dual red-letter moment. Jay’son just finished the Benjamin Jepson School in Fair Haven Heights and is full of pre-business and pre-law dreams as he plans to enter the Metropolitan Business Academy in the fall. Shortly before he graduated, his grandmother received her master’s degree in social work from Southern Connecticut State University.
They studied together and helped each other, said Wells. “Sometimes I was stressed, and he was the grandma and I was the kid,” she added. The young man acknowledged that he was particularly useful when his grandma had to prepare a PowerPoint presentation.
The Czekajs were directed to the Consultation Center by a staffer at probate court when they were stressed and confused by procedures around taking guardianship of her grandkids from their troubled daughter.
Christy Czekaj said one of the biggest problems was how to cope with her daughter intervening and wanting control again over the kids.
“Love is not enough. You have to provide a stable, warm home, and food in the fridge,” which her daughter was not doing, she said.
For Czekaj, who used to be a professional day care provider and also a foster parent, the experience of permanent legal guardianship of grandkids has been loving but also sobering. “Raising a second set [of kids] is not like the first. I have my daughter in between,” she said.
And then there’s the issue of time of life.
“When you take in grandkids, your friends don’t.” You often lose those friends. “When you go to pre-school [to pick up your grandkid] there are [only] 20-somethings. You need to make a whole new world,” she said.
Czekaj and her husband Michael, who is still working part time because the family needs the money, have had to go to many appointments for therapy with their daughter and separate therapy with the grandkids. The therapists often give conflicting advice, she said.
“There were so many appointments, there was no time to parent. So much knowledge, no time to use it,” she said with a calm sense of humor.
“We went to family therapy and they said he [Jose] needed to see his mom. Another [therapist] said the best thing for him was not to see his mom again. Now we’re on a supervised visitation,” Czekaj said. She had not known about that option and it is working out best, she added.
Calls to the Consultation Center staff helped her sort through such options and contradictions, she added. “I had some court dates that really rattled me. I called [the center] and they really helped.”
The center also provides concrete services, often around schooling at all levels. For Barbara Wells and her son, that took the form of stipends to help pay fees at the Boys and Girls Club in the Hill, where Jay’son went after school while his mother worked and went to class, until he got old enough to go directly home from school himself.
The center’s gerontologist, Donna Fedus, said when the program began five years ago many of the grandparents, few of whom had been to college, specifically asked for help with college applications. The Consultation Center gave it, offering computers to families who had no access and partnering with college prep services.
Beyond that concrete help, the network the grandparent-led families creates is perhaps its chief asset. Christy Czekaj said she has met several families during the family trips and respite time the program also provides. They have become friends outside of the center as well.
She now is able to help others based on her own experiences. “I’ve been able to mentor some of the ladies for whom it [the experience of suddenly having to take custody and care of grandkids] was like cold water,” she said.
The Consultation Center is one of only three programs in town focusing on the needs of families where the kids are being raised by grandparents, or in a much smaller number of cases, uncles or aunts. A second program is run out of the Board of Education; the third is run by the probate court.
There are approximately 20,000 kids in Connecticut—roughly the entire population of the New Haven public schools—who are living in homes where the grandparents are the chief householders.
Fedus estimated that the 45 grandparent-led families she works with in New Haven are a “drop in the bucket” of the overall and growing need in New Haven, the region, and the country. Click here for a fact sheet with more statewide data about grandparents and other relatives raising kids in Connecticut.
“I don’t watch drama on TV because I have everything in my family,” said Michael Czekaj. “If we don’t do it, who will?”