Aleatra Jackson, 59, described with reverence the moment her grandson, Zion, 14, came into her home permanently.
"He and his siblings were all sleeping on the floor," Jackson recalled. "One of them woke him up and said, 'Zion, your grandmother's here.' He jumped off the floor. He was rubbing his eyes, because he was still half-sleep, and he said, 'Can I live with you?'
"He stayed with me for the Christmas holiday and four days later, I get a call from the Rock Island police telling me his mother was incarcerated and they had taken the rest of the children. They asked if Zion could stay with me."
Jackson said that her son, Zion's father, was already incarcerated. She didn't anticipate that her grandson's mother would also end up in prison.
"I just thought that maybe she would be in jail for a couple of days," Jackson said. "I thought Zion would stay a couple of weeks. He's been with me for almost 10 years."
Jackson, of Maywood, is one of the nearly 275,000 grandparents in Illinois raising grandchildren, according to Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (4th). For the last 10 years, the Maywood lawmaker has hosted her annual Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Hall of Fame, which is designed to recognize grandparents in her district for their often unsung work.
The state offers more financial support for children who are in foster care than for those raised by relatives — a reality that many grandparents who were interviewed for this story lamented.
"Because Zion wasn't a ward of the state, and I didn't let the police take him out of my home and put him in the system, there were no benefits for me," said Jackson, who along with her husband, Rueben, 72, was inducted into the Grandparents Hall of Fame in 2017.
"As I saw it, there was no help from the state," said Jeanette Lynch of Chicago's Austin community and a 2017 inductee. Lynch, 66, raised one grandchild full-time while caring for two more during the day. "I did what I had to do. I also raised a niece from the age of three months and that was difficult. I kept her until she was 16 years old. I couldn't get any assistance because she was a relative."
Patricia Rencher, 56, and her husband Ronnie, 57, have raised six children — not including three of their own. When Ronnie's sister died, they took in her two young children, raising them to adulthood before tragedy touched down again.
"In 2011, we lost our daughter," Patricia said. "She had a seizure in the tub. From that day forward, we've been raising our grandchildren — ages 9, 12, 13 and 14. We just did what we had to do. That's our blood and our blood wasn't going in the street or in the system."
The Renchers, who were inducted in the Grandparents Hall of Fame in 2018, got a few hundred dollars in Social Security payments per month for each child, Patricia said.
"We just trust God and do the best we can with what we have to work with," she said.
Jackson said that events like Lightford's are so important, because they connect grandparents who are raising grandchildren to critical resources.
"I started doing the Hall of Fame because there was no support at all for grandparents," Lightford said.
The state senator explained that her annual event grew out of her close relationship with the late state Rep. Lovana "Lou" Jones, a 10-term legislator who decided to raise her five grandchildren after her daughter died.
Roughly a decade ago, Jones and Lightford passed legislation designed to bolster state support for grandparents raising grandchildren. There's still more legislative work to do, Lightford said, before adding that the annual Hall of Fame is a direct and immediate show of appreciation.
"We just want to provide them with a day that is specifically for their enjoyment, relaxation and entertainment," the lawmaker said. "I want to let them know that I appreciate them for parenting for a second time and caring for their children and families, and not allowing them to become victims of the system."
So far, 267 grandparents have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, Lightford said. Each year, the grandparents get grab bag gifts — from kitchen sets to blenders.
The experience of raising children for the second time around, while challenging, can also be deeply satisfying, many grandparents said.
"When you've got kids around, you feel more energetic, because they do keep you busy," said Mildred Bumpers, 81. Bumpers, a former Maywood resident who now lives on Chicago's West Side, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
Bumpers raised three grandchildren — all boys — whose ages range from 23 to 37. The youngest grandchild just went off to college, Bumpers said.
Some grandparents offered advice for others raising their children's children.
"You just do the best you can and make sure you bring them up and let them know who really loves them," said Bernice Mosey, 73, of Maywood, and a 2016 inductee. "And that's God."
Bernice Sykes, of Bellwood, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016. The 84-year-old raised two grandchildren into adulthood.
"You have to have a lot of patience and love that is forever," said Sykes, "because they'll drive you to drinking and I don't drink, so I know I had that forever love."
"All of this was new to us," Jackson said, reflecting on her and her husband's lives as grandparents who have had to parent. "But we've been faithful and it has worked out for the good. The word Zion means a place of praise, so God knew what he was doing."
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