Barnes wanted to help other grandfamilies who were struggling to make ends meet. Photo: Facebook.
Barnes wanted to help other grandfamilies who were struggling to make ends meet. Photo: Facebook.

Grands Stepping Up provides much-needed resources for elderly caring for their grandkids

The organization prioritizes helping grandparents overcome the unexpected task of raising a grandchild.


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The opioid crisis in Philadelphia has left an overwhelming amount of families struggling to help their loved ones. 

According to statistics provided by the city, over 578 residents died last year due to unintentional drug overdoses.

These sudden deaths break families apart and often leave children without their parents. In their place, grandparents often step up and raise their grandchildren despite lack of financial support or other resources.

One person who is familiar with this pattern is Karen Barnes, the founder and director of Grands Stepping Up (GSU)

She created the nonprofit for grandparents and guardians that found themselves raising and caring for their grandchildren as a result of addiction, incarceration, mental illness, or death.

Barnes, whose daughter suffered from addiction, was left raising her grandchild.

“I was on disability, I didn't have any income and now I have this new baby who has all of these needs,” Barnes said in a recent interview with AL DÍA News.

Not only was she lacking financial support, Barnes was also struggling emotionally and mentally from the new change in her life.

All the support groups she found were also only available during the holidays. Barnes was left figuring out where to get the basic necessities for a newborn.

“I really couldn't afford diapers, wipes, formula, it was a very rough and rocky road,” she said.

Eventually, she sought a support group for other grandparents that have stepped up to care for their grandchildren. She now had other people she could talk to and discuss concerns and frustrations.

However, Barnes had a friend who got a frantic phone call one Friday night, which enabled her to make a momentous decision.

“In Jan. 2020, one friend who I met through the group was raising two of her grandchildren got a phone call from Children and Youth Services (CYS) in Pottstown on a Friday night,” said Barnes. “It was a cold and rainy day, she had an hour to get her third newborn grandchild in an hour or the baby was going to be placed in foster care. She didn't even know her daughter was pregnant with a third child.”

Her friend raced to Pottstown and was suddenly overwhelmed with having to raise a third grandchild.

“She received the baby, a car seat, a bottle, and a couple of outfits. CYS said good luck, we will be at your place in a few weeks to check on him, that's all,” said Barnes

She helped her friend by creating a chain on Facebook, asking for donations to help. In less than 24 hours, neighbors all around Delaware County sent hundreds of baby supplies to Barnes’ friend.

“When I went to bed that night I told myself that I had an obligation, a means to help other people who are struggling,” she said.

Barnes founded Grands Stepping Up (GSU) in February 2020.

But just as her organization began to grow, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Philadelphia, and left many residents unable to pay their bills, including Barnes’ own family.

“I am raising my nine-year-old granddaughter but I also have my daughter who has a feeding tube and her little boys,” she said. “My other daughter was furloughed due to COVID-19 and she has a son as well.”

On top of everything else, Barnes’ brother was diagnosed with COVID-19 and died three days after his diagnosis.

She was devastated by the sudden loss of her brother, but still forged ahead with an additional program for GSU, called Denis’ Pantry, to assist people struggling to feed their families.

To house the pantry, Barnes got space from Pastor Mike Emge from the Llanerch Hills Chapel in Havertown. The loss of her brother almost jeopardized it coming to fruition.

“I missed the time to do the proposal, my brother had just passed away and my heart was ripped out,” she said.

One night, she wrote a lengthy email to the board and told her about her situation.

“It was kind of unprofessional, but I had just lost my brother,” she said.

No matter how it was received, it worked, and the pantry went ahead.

Ever since she got the space, Barnes has not turned anyone away in need of food and other necessary supplies.

“Now Denis’ pantry will be the slice of pie that will always help assist our county,” she said. “We plan on going to other countries and hope to go all across America.”

GSU also has legal clinics and specialized family services for grieving families. 

“We are focusing on providing a legal service, we don't want any grandparent to be homeless or without utilities,” said Barnes.

The organization also identifies the certain needs of counseling for children and a coaching model for grandparents.

“Grandparents are suffering too, they are at a loss with their children from mental health issues, addiction, incarceration, some grandparents have no clue where their children are but they are trying to keep it all together,” she said.

GSU had 20 families when the program originally started, and now are at a total of 75.

“If you are anywhere you can come to Denis’ pantry and get some supplies,” she said. 

For more information on Grands Stepping Up, please visit its website.

This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at


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