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Supporting healthy "grandfamilies"

Mariah Martin, MSW ’21

With 1 in 14 West Virginia youth being raised by grandparents, one West Virginia University student is committed to ensuring they have the resources they need to support their families.  

Mariah Martin
Mariah Martin

Master of Social Work student Mariah Martin is an intern with Healthy Grandfamilies, an eight-week training program from the Children’s Home Society for grandparents voluntarily raising their grandchildren.    

“There is a population of grandparents in West Virginia who are not officially raising their grandchildren,” Martin said. “These are not legally binding contracts or Department of Health and Human Resources cases. The parents just voluntarily gave up custody of their children.”

The grandparents have a lot of questions, and Martin hopes to put them at ease.  

“These grandparents are nervous because they don’t want to put their grandchildren at risk of being taken away,” she said. “It’s also a multigenerational thing. They are raising their grandchildren in a completely different world than when they raised their children. There’s a lot of shame they are experiencing because they feel like they messed up. They question why they are in this situation. They feel like they are at fault for their children not being able to parent and raise their children.”

The trainings cover topics like the K-12 school system, legal issues, nutrition, technology and self-care.

“The grandparents come together for two hours each week to hear from these experts, learn about a topic and share a meal. There is a lot of discussion. They create a bond,” Martin said. “There is free childcare as well, and the kids become close.”

Each week, Martin proactively reaches out to the “grandfamilies.” She is also teaching a body safety class as part of Child Abuse Awareness Month.

“I have a wide range of duties,” Martin said. “I interact with the children. I communicate with the grandparents to ask how they are doing and see if they have any questions or need anything. I sit in on the sessions, eat with them, get to know them. I am just being a human and building those relationships.”

After the eight weeks of training conclude, the families receive three months of free social work services.

“This program is really important because West Virginia as a whole is a very familial place. We take care of our own. It is just an example of the people of West Virginia taking care of the people of West Virginia,” Martin said. “What the grandparents are doing is really heroic, so we just want to help them do whatever they can to raise the next generation of West Virginians.”  

According to the program’s impact report, the 43 grandparents raising 90 grandchildren in the program’s first year reported that they felt 97.6% better prepared to raise their grandchildren.

“Mariah easily connected with the grandparents as well as the children who were a part of the program,” said Brandi Davis, regional director of the Children’s Home Society. “She connected families to resources, helped to create action plans that helped families identify needs and provided supports and connection to services to assist the families. She was a strong advocate in this role and demonstrated her ability to work with various populations and groups.”

Martin’s undergraduate experience as a criminology and psychology double major led her to a career in social work. After completing her clinical placement at the Monongalia County Child Advocacy Center and a class at the Hazelton Federal Correction Institute for women through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, she knew she had found the right career path.

“During my field placement, I quickly fell in love with the work that social work therapists do and the kids that they help. I was hired there to do community clinical liaison work and was asked to stay on after I graduated in December 2018,” Martin said. “I got to work with the population I wanted to, which is children. It was children in the community whose families did not have a lot of money. As a nonprofit, we provided all sorts of services with no out of pocket costs to families. I felt like we were really helping the population that needed help the most but couldn’t really ask for it.” 

After graduation, Martin aspires to open her own independent social work practice working with traumatized children.

“WVU has given me so many different opportunities and directions. That’s how I’ve become the person I am today,” she said. “I’ve learned to not be afraid to approach people, to just go in with confidence and meet people where they are at and treat everyone like a human being. I have learned to be a listener first and foremost and hear their stories.”

This article is part of a series highlighting WVU School of Social Work students during National Social Work Month.