FORT VALLEY -- For a couple hours on a sunny afternoon, Mattie and James Watson were typical grandparents.
They lounged in the living room of their one-story Fort Valley house, telling stories about their former jobs, their children and their grandchildren.
But the mode shifted at 4:30 p.m., when seven children ages 5 to 10 bounced into the house, chattering about their school days, scattering shoes and backpacks across the floor and asking their grandparents for dinner, Halloween costumes and help with homework. Its busy, busy, busy all day, Mattie Watson, 65, said.
The Fort Valley couple are anything but normal grandparents. They are part of a large group of Peach County grandparents who raise their grandchildren. Now, the local school system is stepping up to help.
It can be a complicated, trying situation for both the grandparents and grandchildren, as many struggle with legal, medical and financial hassles. The Watsons, for example, are responsible for nine grandchildren and great-grandchildren on an income of about $3,000 a month.
They are the official guardians of five grandchildren, but the others often spend nights and weekends at their house, they said. Their grandchildren are covered under Medicaid, but the Watsons do not qualify for food stamps. Last Christmas, the childrens gifts came from the Salvation Army and other charitable organizations.
Other than that, were just on our own, Mattie Watson said. We try to get what they need and not worry about what they want.
For the past few years, Peach County schools have targeted those families, developing the Grandparents as Parents program to offer some assistance. Grandparents gather once a month at Fort Valley United Methodist Church, where they support one another and get advice from professionals, such as attorneys and health care workers.
Recently, the program has gained statewide attention. The Georgia Department of Education recently held a parent coordinator conference in Fort Valley mainly because officials were impressed with the Grandparents as Parents program, they said.
When it started in 2008, up to 12 families attended the program. Now meetings draw up to 75 families each month, said Sara Mason, Peach County district parent coordinator. Mason realized a need for the program in 2007, when she hosted a grandparent lunch at Hunt Elementary School.
When I visited with those grandparents, I realized that a large number of them were actually raising their grandchildren, she said.
High rates in midstate
In some parts of Middle Georgia, the numbers of grandparents raising grandchildren are among the highest in the state. In urban Bibb County, for example, grandparents are raising grandchildren in 9.5 percent of families near Macon, according to a Telegraph analysis of 2010 Census data. Only a few other areas, including Atlanta, have rates that high.
That rate is 6.1 percent in parts of Houston County, mainly in Warner Robins, and 7.2 percent near the southern part of Fort Valley in Peach County. Grandparents are raising children in 329 Peach County households, according to the latest Census data.
And thats a pretty large number when you think about it, Ken Banter, Title I director for Peach County schools, said at a recent conference.
Those rates are the result of a myriad of parent issues from drug abuse and incarceration to mental health problems. In Peach County, they do have a high rate of abuse and neglect, said Geri Ward, director of the Middle Georgia Area Agency on Aging.
In fiscal 2011, child protection services investigated 146 cases, which involved 147 children, in Peach, according to the countys Division of Family and Children Services of the Georgia Department of Human Services.
When children come from abusive homes, they often resent adults and have trouble connecting with their grandparents, Ward said.
Meanwhile, grandparents are making their own adjustments. They are starting over in a role that, a person of that age, they thought they were done with, said Natalie Prater, intake and screening specialist for the Middle Georgia Area Agency on Aging.
Starting over again
Mattie and James Watson have spent more than 40 years raising children -- without a break. In addition to their own four children, they cared for a total of 46 foster children until Mattie was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. James Watson, 67, is retired from Robins Air Force Base, and Mattie Watson operated a day care center and taught Head Start classes for years.
Then there are the grandchildren. The Watsons have been the permanent guardians of their sons five children, ages 8 to 12, for about seven years. Their father is too unstable to take care of them, Mattie Watson said, and their mother claimed she could not handle the children. So the Watsons stepped up.
The childrens mother has promised her children for years that they will one day live with her again, but it has not happened, Mattie Watson said.
They dont know her, she said, and she doesnt know them.
As they waited for their grandchildren to come home from school, the Watsons described a life that revolves around children. While they love children and enjoy caring for their grandkids, its not easy, they say.
It was a turnaround starting all over again, Mattie Watson said. Getting to do the little things we would normally do, its a challenge with the children.
Their days are filled with school meetings, ball games, practices, church events and homework. James Watson does three to four loads of laundry a day. Mattie Watson carefully plans each meal. The Watsons try to take naps when the children are at school, but that rarely happens.
Their days became more hectic when one of the children became ill and was admitted to the hospital on different occasions. He might have to have surgery.
Theres never a day when I can ... watch TV and just sit, Mattie Watson said.
Inside their house, toys and childrens furniture sit among Matties massive frog collection, family photos, trophies and an assortment of football memorabilia.
About 4 p.m., 13-year-old Amya Lockhart, a great-grandchild, walks into the house and goes directly to a bedroom, where she chats on the phone. A few minutes later, a clan of children ages 5 to 10 bounce into the house.
Its Halloween, and most of them are chattering about their plans and their costumes. Eight-year-old Cyan Watson snatches her witch costume from a bedroom and tries it on.
They mean a lot to me because they put a roof over my head and because they give me food, Cyan, who wants to be a doctor when she grows up, said about her grandparents. They put clothes on my back and shoes on my feet.
They sprawl on the living room carpet and begin their homework, a routine the Watsons make sure their grandchildren complete each day. Mattie Watson attempts to read a newspaper, but 5-year-old Nikira Lockhart needs help with her homework. One of the children hands James Watson a book titled Tiggy Goes Shopping, and he slips his glasses on before reading it. Cyan sits on the sofa, reading another book out loud.
Even if they have no homework, the children are expected to read a book for 45 minutes. When 10-year-old Caymen Watson finishes his reading for the afternoon, Mattie Watson asks him to explain what he just read.
They do everything they can, said Caymen, who has a twin brother and likes to play football. They help me have a better life.
They always make us understand
While the situation often is difficult for grandparents, its also hard on the children, school officials say.
The Grandparents as Parents program is working to monitor students who live with their grandparents and offer assistance, such as behavior or academic counseling, if needed. Students in the program also take field trips. They recently attended an Atlanta Hawks game.
Grandparents, such as Jurry Ross, 73, of Fort Valley, credit the program with helping them through trying times. After her daughter died, Ross began taking care of her grandson, who is now 12 years old.
Things that we dont understand, they always make us understand them, she said about the program, while speaking at a conference.
The Watsons also take part in Grandparents as Parents. They have taken computer classes and parenting workshops, and their grandchildren have taken part in different activities. The program is a huge help, and the Watsons are open to any assistance they can get, they said.
Most people say, How do you do it? Mattie Watson said. But we do it.
To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.