Hundreds of grandparents raising grandchildren are getting much-needed support during the COVID-19 pandemic from West Virginia State University’s (WVSU) Healthy Grandfamilies program. Led by WVSU Extension Service and the university’s Department of Social Work, the program is providing education, support, social work resources and – in some cases – financial assistance to grandfamilies that is keeping food on the table and kids physically active during the pandemic.

“West Virginia ranks second in the nation for the prevalence of grandparents raising their grandchildren, so this program is meeting a dire need in our state” said WVSU Extension Specialist Bonnie Dunn, who helped launched the program in 2016. “With schools unexpectedly closed during the spring semester because of the coronavirus, we found that many of our grandparents were struggling to make up for lost instructional time, meals and physical activity.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, WVSU Healthy Grandfamilies partnered with the West Virginia Family Engagement Center (WVFEC) to provide support to grandfamilies in that group’s five-county service region.

“WVFEC is based on current evidence-based practices that engage families, educators and community members in the educational process to enhance student academic achievement, so aligning our missions made perfect sense,” said Dunn. “Through collaboration, we’re able to offer grandfamilies a variety of opportunities to participate with their grandchild’s education, health and wellbeing during these unprecedented times.”

To practice safe social distancing, the program was conducted via telephone conversations with identified grandfamilies to discuss their specific needs, share program information and resources, and upon completion were mailed a gift card. One hundred percent of participants reported increased family engagement following the sessions and used the gift card funding to supplement food and physical activity needs for their grandchildren while the state’s schools were shut down, when daytime meals and recreation time were no longer provided through the school system.

One grandmother purchased her grandson his first bicycle. “I thought it would be a good way for him to be outside and participate in physical activity to promote a healthier lifestyle, which is something that is stressed in the program,” she said. Similarly, other participants reported using the funds to purchase items such as new bedding and outdoor recreation materials, resulting in improved sleep and physical activity.

WVFEC funding is provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Through the partnership with WVSU Healthy Grandfamilies, more than 300 grandparents and grandchildren across five counties and 25 schools have received education, resources and support. 

The WVSU Healthy Grandfamilies program launched in 2016 as a pilot project in five West Virginia counties, providing a series of discussion sessions and follow-up social work services to grandparents raising grandchildren. While not a requirement to participate, grandparents nearly always cited the state’s high opioid addiction rate as the primary reason behind them providing kinship care to grandchildren. The program focused on topics such as navigating the school and legal systems, health literacy and self-care, social media, and parenting in the 21st century. 

The success of the initial pilot, and the state’s growing number of grandfamilies, have led to statewide expansion, continued support from state government, and a waiting list of people wanting the program in their region. Throughout 2019, staff provided train-the-trainer sessions to program partners in all of the state’s 55 counties. As the COVID-19 pandemic has lengthened throughout 2020, organizers are exploring ways to take the program fully virtual.