How the Healthy Grandfamilies initiative grew from a small pilot project to a statewide support program

BUCKHANNON – Have you heard of the Healthy Grandfamilies Program, and do you know all the resources it offers to the many grandparents raising their grandchildren all across West Virginia and right here in Upshur County?

Upshur County Senior Center Executive Director, Sarah Campbell, who is the coalition coordinator of the Healthy Grandfamilies initiative locally, said the Upshur County Healthy Grandfamilies Summer Session began June 8 and will continue on most Tuesdays from 6 to 7:15 p.m. through Aug. 17 at the Upshur County Recreational Park Pavilion, located at 308 B-U Drive in Tennerton.

“Those sessions are really just discussion groups where we will be able to answer questions and provide information,” Campbell said. “It is very informal and comfortable and that is the way we want to keep with the group.”

Originally established as a pilot project, the Healthy Grandfamilies program has now expanded to serve grandparents either raising or partially raising one or more grandchildren in all 55 West Virginia counties. Led by West Virginia State University in partnership with volunteer professionals and speakers knowledgeable about a variety of parenting-related topics, the purpose of Healthy Grandfamilies is to provide information, resources and a nonjudgmental atmosphere for grandparents who are the primary caretakers of their grandchildren.

The discussion sessions, which span nine weeks, impart information about a variety of topics, including parenting in the 21st century, communication, technology and social media, nutrition, legal issues and obtaining documents, health literacy and self-care, stress management, negotiating the public school system, healthy lifestyles and trauma-informed care.

In addition to the Senior Center, other agencies in the community who can make referrals to the Grandfamilies Program include WIC, Mountain CAP and the Upshur County Family Resource Network. But how and why, exactly, did the Healthy Grandfamilies initiative begin and expand to all West Virginia counties?

From pilot project to statewide program: The evolution of Healthy Grandfamilies

Bonnie Dunn is the Project Co-Director and Extension Specialist at West Virginia State University for the Healthy Grandfamilies Project. She shared how and why the program began and some statistical information about the Healthy Grandfamilies. Dunn said in 2015, she and a colleague came up with the idea to write a grant to help West Virginia residents were raising children that were not their own.

Dunn said they came up with a model for a six-month intervention and wrote a grant to the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Extension Service.

“They came back to us and told us they would provide the funding but asked us to focus solely on grandparents raising grandchildren in West Virginia,” Dunn said. “In 2015, grandfamilies were an ever-increasing household designation. Over the past three years, there has been a tremendous increase of grandparents raising grandchildren and that has been mostly due to the opioid epidemic.”

Dunn said that some children have been dropped off at the front doors by their biological parents or, in some cases, Child Protective Services contact the grandparents, and they end up with the children.

“We agreed to do a three-year research study with 125 cohorts,” Dunn said. “Eighty-eight percent of those participating in our program were caring for their grandchildren as a result of drugs – the primary reason. We found out that 125 – all of the grandparents in our program – had a professionally-diagnosed chronic illness such as diabetes. So, the grandparents who were raising these grandchildren were not well.”

Another astonishing statistic Dunn shared was that the average number of children these grandparents were raising was 2.5 per family – with seven being the highest number of grandchildren being raised by grandparents.

“Most of the grandparents receive Social Security,” she said. “We found 25 percent of the grandchildren had medical issues as well.”

Dunn said through the pilot program, many partnerships were made with entities such as the West Virginia State Department of Education, Family Resource Networks, local health departments and local boards of education.

“A lot of our partners toward the end of our grant said they felt the program was too important to let it drop,” she said. “So, we did get funding from a number of agencies including the Bureau of Senior Services. But the really big thing that happened was the West Virginia State Legislature found out about our program. The Legislature awarded us $300,000 and asked that we develop a Healthy Grandfamilies Coalition in every county in the state of West Virginia.”

Dunn said during 2019, she spent the entire year going from county-to-county training local leaders about how to set up the program based on the original model.

“Today, this program is in all 55 counties,” Dunn said. “Although COVID put a stop to a lot of things … the grandfamilies remained in touch with the coalitions and made sure they got what they needed.”

Today, all 55 counties are engaged in their Healthy Grandfamilies programs.

“We have even had other states contact us for help in setting up the program in their areas,” Dunn said. “Kentucky, Virginia and New Hampshire have been trained, and we were contacted by Guam for training, so, this is not just a West Virginia problem. West Virginia, however, does rank second in the United States as to states where grandparents are raising their grandchildren – right behind Mississippi.”

Dunn said along with the Legislature’s support, they have many funding partners who keep the Healthy Grandfamilies program going.

“The bulk of our money goes directly to support the grandfamilies themselves,” Dunn said. “It’s not salaries and overhead costs – it’s none of that. It goes to their support.”

Dunn said the program does hire social workers to help the grandfamilies.

“We contract with social workers to provide advocacy, intervention and being the person to help that family work through bureaucratic agencies,” she said. “That is a very important part of the program. The social workers are always independent of CPS because the grandparents are leery of that.”

Dunn said they are certain there are many more grandfamilies out there than what the Census indicates.

“We have been having boards of education track who is raising children. We need to know how many children are being raised by their grandparents and we found out in one high school in Kanawha County, there are 114 students being raised by their grandparents – so we know the statistics are not accurate,” she said. “The problem is much bigger than any of us can imagine. The program survives and continues to grow because grandparents keep getting grandchildren to raise and many do not know where to begin and what help or resources are available for them.”

Dunn said by grandparents raising their grandchildren, it saves the foster care system $650 billion per year.

“The grandfamilies are eligible to receive a check through WV WORKS, called ‘child only,’ for $417 a month for the first grandchild,” she said. “It is prorated for each grandchild after that. When grandparents call into us, one of the first things we ask is if they are receiving a check to help raise their grandchildren. So, we help them fill out the paperwork for them to begin getting a monthly support check to help them raise their grandchildren.”

Dunn said along with ‘child only’ there are other resources available for grandparents raising their grandchildren. She said in 2020, there were more than 35,000 children in the state of West Virginia known to live in the primary custody of their grandparents.

Campbell: Healthy Grandfamilies provides ‘safe space’ for older adults raising their grandchildren

Locally, in Upshur County, Campbell said one of the great aspects of the Healthy Grandfamilies Program is that it is a safe space to talk for grandparents to talk about any struggles they are facing and to interact with others who are encountering the same barriers.

“It offers them the opportunity to get ideas and really just have a place to be heard and not judged,” Campbell said. “I think that is hard to find elsewhere, and I think this is one of the unique things about the program.”

The other good positive aspect the program offers, according to Campbell, is a question-and-answer session after presenters speak that is designed to offer information and resources.

“Our goal is always to take their questions and find an answer and come back to them with some solutions,” Campbell said. “The whole part behind our presence is that we are a resource – not that we come in and judge families or tell them what they are doing wrong – that is not what we are there for. Our biggest goal is, our social workers are there to be able to learn what families need and help them through the process.”

With the summer session underway now, the coalition is beginning to plan the second round of sessions which will begin in the fall.

Campbell said grandparents raising their grandchildren who are interested in the program may contact her by calling 304-472-0528 or by emailing Additional information about the Healthy Grandfamilies Program, including how to access the program in each county in West Virginia, is available online at

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