Filling the Gap

Mar 4, 2022 | Stories from the Diocese

Local school administrators estimate that more than half of the children in Shenandoah County Schools are being parented by grandparents. Sheila Helsley is one of them. In the early 2000s, while working full time, she suddenly found herself caring full time for her 2-year-old granddaughter. She later took on the care of her 11-month-old grandson. Their mother, Sheila’s daughter, suffered from drug addiction and was not able to provide safe care for the children, so Sheila was ultimately granted custody. Knowing that there were so many grandparents facing similar challenges, Sheila longed to create a support network to help other grandparents facing the multifaceted challenges – financial, legal, educational, emotional, and more — of raising grandchildren in their golden years.

In 2018, Shelia founded Grandparents as Parents (GAP) at Emmanuel, Woodstock, where she is a parishioner. The incredible need in the community and the eager response among grandparents has made quickly GAP one of the Church’s largest ministries.

The support group meets monthly at the Church and includes dinner and childcare. The group typically has between 25 and 50 attendees each month. Group members include grandparents who have one, two, or even as many as five grandchildren they’re raising. Each family has their own story of how they came to be parenting once again, whether due to issues related to drug abuse, neglect, abandonment or because a family member died, leaving behind children who needed a home.

After dinner, the children branch off to play and the adults settle in to hear the month’s speaker. There’s also time for informal conversation in which the participants share tips, resources and other useful information. It’s a warm, welcoming, safe environment for people to bond with others who are walking the same road, sharing similar challenges.

The congregation of Beckford Parish (Emmanuel, Woodstock and St. Andrew’s Mount Jackson) has embraced this ministry. Sheila can make a request for a specific need and she says parishioners are always quick and eager to help. Parishioners donate money, food, diapers, gifts cards for clothing, school supplies, household furnishings and more. They look forward each year to providing special treats for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

GAP is a great example of what a church can do when they seek first to understand the real needs of the community in which they live and then respond to the call to fill that “gap.”