Learning to parent again can be daunting, especially when coupled with failing health and fixed incomes.
As the number of grandparents who find themselves in the role of primary caregiver grows, a new housing project in South Tucson is being developed to support them.
Las Abuelitas Family Housing will feature two- and three-bedroom homes with one handicapped-accessible bathroom and large hallways for maneuvering a wheelchair or scooter.
Developed by the Primavera Foundation, the goal of the project is to create a community for grandparents to consult with one another and arrange cooperative carpools or child care.
"There's such a tremendous need for this," said Doris Gildner, 67, who is raising her 10-year-old great-granddaughter. "It will be a community where everybody understands what we're going though."
Gildner is one of two local grandmothers who was consulted on in the design of the project and plans to move in when the homes are complete this summer.
In Tucson, more than 17,000 children are living in the care of a grandparent or great-grandparent.
Las Abuelitas will be the second so-called "grandfamily" housing project in Arizona and the seventh in the country.
The 12 Las Abuelitas units are under construction on an acre of land across from El Casino Ballroom on East 26th Street near South Fourth Avenue. The land was donated by Pima County as long as the site offers low-income housing for 30 years, said Peggy Hutchison, Primavera's CEO.
She said a delegation of grandparents approached Primavera with the idea of a community for them.
"It's really a marginalized constituency," Hutchison said. "Many are living on the brink of, or in, poverty."
Specifications from the grandmothers who were consulted on the design included two bathrooms, one with a tub for the kids' bath time and one with a walk-in shower.
The kitchen and living room are one room so the kids are in their line of sight while grandma is cooking, Hutchison said.
The patios have gates to the common area, but can be closed for privacy.
The community room will have a library, kitchen and play room. There will also be an outdoor community garden.
The cost of the development is $3.6 million.
The low-income rental units will be available for people making 50 percent to 80 percent of the average median income and rents will be between $560 and $840 a month, Hutchison said.
She called it a "pilot" project that Primavera hopes to duplicate in pockets around the city.
"It's a great way to repurpose and infill land within our city," Hutchison said.
Primavera owns and manages 12 rental properties in Tucson and South Tucson and two emergency shelters.
Las Abuelitas is its first new, multifamily project.
Penelope Jacks, director of Children's Action Alliance Southern Arizona, called the development "exciting."
"Some of these grandparents are living in small, retirement places," she said. "We need to support the kids, support the grandparents and give them a place they can afford."
She estimates the state of Arizona saves $15 million a year when a grandparent takes a child out of state custody.
"That's a chunk of money," Jacks said.
Grandparents get help
Grandmothers say there's a lot to learn anew.
Temper-tantrum management, school work, peer pressure, social media.
"I don't know what I'm facing," said Rosa Borbon, 66, who is raising her 12-year-old granddaughter.
The baby girl was born in a crack house and had drugs in her system, Borbon said.
Borbon convinced her granddaughter's mother to let her have the baby.
"She was OK with it," Borbon said. "She didn't want the responsibility."
The father - Borbon's son - is in prison on drug-related charges. The mother died three years ago.
"Due to my diabetes, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do it," Borbon said. "Some of our kids are so attached to us because of what they've been through."
Aside from refining her parenting skill, Borbon said she had to research mental health and counseling resources for her granddaughter.
"That was a big change in my life," she said. "I'd never had to deal with anything like that."
The notion of living in a community where others understand the challenge will be comforting to grandparents, Borbon said.
"It will be a place where we can get together as a group - as a family," she said. "We want it to be a place where the grandparents feel safe and know that the children are safe."
Gildner agreed the haven of Las Abuelitas will appeal to many.
"There will be no problem filling up those 12 units," she said. "I'll be the first in line."
Gildner became a full-time parent after her great-granddaughter wound up in the custody of Child Protective Services.
The lack of resources as she tried to manage her new situation was frustrating, Gildner said.
"There are so many programs for substance abusers and the homeless," she said. "Most of us have worked all of our lives so we didn't qualify for assistance."
Along with Borbon, Gildner lobbied Primavera for the development.
Both grandmothers, who are members of the Arizona Grandparent Ambassadors, said their efforts are rewarded by watching the children flourish.
Borbon said her granddaughter is on the honor roll at her middle school and has a big sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson. "That's a blessing because I can't bend down and play with her and her dolls or go on picnics," Borbon said.
"Where would they (the children) be if we didn't have them?" Gildner asked. "That's why we all step up. We just want the tools to help us."
For more information on the housing project call Michael Finkelstein at 308-3102.
Did you know?
The Primavera Foundation is marking its 30th anniversary this year. A celebration will be held on May 2 at El Casino Ballroom. For more information visit primavera.org
By the numbers
A snapshot of Arizona "grandfamilies:"
children being raised by grandparents or great-grandparents
percent live in poverty
percent of these grandparents are working or job hunting
percent of these grandparents have a disability
Source: Children's Action Alliance
Contact reporter Gabriela Rico at email@example.com or 573-4232.