St. Joseph Great Start Parent Coalition starts grandparent support group

By Brenda Brissette-Mata

ST. JOSEPH -- According to the U.S. Census, 74,738 Michigan grandparents had primary responsibility for their grandchildren in 2008.

Irene Gunnink of St. Joseph County is among them, and knows how hard the job is, especially without a little support.

“You want to be able to talk to other people who understand what you are going through,” she said. “A lot of (grandparents) are usually dealing with an adult child who is mentally ill, bipolar or using drugs.”

For years, Gunnink made the 60 mile drive to Kalamazoo to attend a grandparent support group.

These days, however, she stays close to home and gets the support she needs by attending Parents Again, a support group created – at Gunnink’s urging, of course - by her local Great Start Parent Coalition

“She identified a gap in (local) services, an issue in our community that needed attention,” said Brenda McGowan, parent liaison for the coalition.

Parents Again, which already has 50 people on its mailing list, meets once a month with speakers geared specifically to difficulties grandparents face.

“Most grandparents have limited guardianship and that brings a whole host of problems,” Gunnink said.

Parents Again not only provides support for grandparents and non-custodial caregivers but also offers coupons at meetings for respite and child care at licensed day care providers in St. Joseph County.

“I have probably become more knowledgeable on more issues than I ever even thought I’d be interested in when I was parenting 30 years ago,” Gunnink said. “Back then we didn’t have anything like Parent Coalition to help us understand what was available and how to navigate the system.”

Funding for Parents Again is provided by the local Council on Aging.

Gunnink also started Grandma’s Attic, a division of Parents Again, which provides basic necessities, like beds, clothing, toys and diapers, at no cost to families in need. Donations are always welcome and can be made by contacting Irene Gunnink at

For more information about the St. Joseph County Great Start Parent Coalition visit