Sylvie de Toledo had just finished her master’s degree in social work when her sister unexpectedly died, leaving behind a young son. The boy’s grandparents became legal guardians and the rest of the family quickly stepped in to communally raise him. As a new social worker, de Toledo began to see that her nephew’s situation was not unique.
“I started doing outpatient therapy with children and families,” de Toledo said, recalling 1983. “And all the kids I was being assigned, it seemed, were being raised by their grandparents. I was seeing in my work the same issues … my nephew was going through and his grandparents were going through.”
The problem clearly was widespread, and de Toledo wanted to do something about it.
“I decided there had to be a way to provide some mutual support for the families because they all felt they were the only ones in this situation,” she said. “They didn’t know anyone else and the kids thought they were the only ones being raised by relative care parents.”
She received permission to start a limited-time support group, but when she saw how widespread the issue was, she asked for a longer-term group. She began seeing that, in addition to mental health support, sometimes families had basic needs — like food, clothing — that also needed to be met. So, in 1987, she started Grandparents As Parents (GAP) as a way to provide more holistically for families in these heart-rending situations.
GAP started out helping grandparents care for the needs of their grandchildren, but quickly ballooned into helping any relative who was caring for a family member’s at-risk child. The nonprofit provides mental health services in both individual counseling and support groups, safety net services that help provide for basic material needs, and grants to cover unexpected financial difficulties. It also coordinates educational classes, advocacy teams and legal support for families navigating the court system. According to Carmen Garcia Hoffman, GAP’s chief operating officer, the charity serves about 3,500 people in the Los Angeles area.
De Toledo says that the charity, funded by donations and the occasional grant, has been able to survive for almost 30 years because grateful grandparents have generously given back.
“I’ve been really lucky to be helped by so many grandparents to help it grow,” de Toledo said. “Relatives who have gotten help from the organization have wanted to give back to help it grow to help more families.”
The GAP community feels like a family, de Toledo said. When a caregiver falls ill, another family will watch the caregiver’s child. When someone needs help around the house, another family will volunteer. Even more, de Toledo makes herself available 24 hours a day to anyone who needs help.
“I have been so fortunate in my career to do something so meaningful with the tragedy of my sister’s death,” she said.
Thanks to de Toledo’s efforts, thousands of lives have been changed.
Touched by the work of this wonderful organization? Let them know you care by donating on their website, Grandparentsasparents.org.