It’s not hard for Brittany Avent to take a candid laughing photo around her grandmother Loretta.
When asked by the photographer to casually talk to one another, it only took one quick quip from Loretta to cause Avent to burst into laughter, as she modestly put her hand to her mouth. Loretta then took to a nearby tree, defying her 71 years as she hung from a branch with her arms and legs, asking for a picture as Avent continued looking slightly embarrassed but completely amused.
This moment almost perfectly captures the duo’s relationship, as the loud, bold grandmother seems to always be simultaneously embarrassing and inspiring her more reserved granddaughter, an interdisciplinary studies junior at ASU. They share the bonds of family, as Avent and her younger brother Bryant were raised by their grandparents since they were young. A family of grandparents and grandchildren.
Except Loretta wouldn’t use that terminology.
“We don’t call them our grandchildren, we call them grandwonders,” she said. “Because we wonder why we have such grand kids.”
Family and Struggle
Loretta said letting go of traditional labels is part of what ensured the success of their family, as they did not represent a traditional household.
“In order for them to grow, we had to truly let go of those titles: ‘grandmother, grandfather (and) grandchildren,’” she said. “All we were were four human beings in a home.”
They even have an untraditional approach to the parent-oriented holidays of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, as Avent explained.
“They would give us cards and gifts,” she said. “They say we are their gifts, each day and on every holiday.”
Loretta nodded and said her grandwonders not only give her the gift of family, but they also keep her young at heart.
“They are better than any vitamin a doctor could prescribe,” she said. “We feel almost honored that we can share with other families what this gift is, because that’s how we see it. It’s God’s gift. … (My) friends are so impressed because I’m so hip compared to them!”
Avent and Bryant’s parents separated and divorced when the children were 8 and 6, respectively, and are now living in different states.
Loretta said she and her husband never asked many questions about the separation, but simply took over the care of Avent and Bryant when their parents asked them.
“We just can’t imagine our lives without what we have with them,” Loretta said while she held her face in her hands, fighting back tears. “All you can deal with is what you’ve got. … We wouldn't have wished this, even though we love them unconditionally, because you still cannot fill the void of the parents, nor did we ever try to do that.”
Avent said although she is extremely grateful for her grandparents, it was difficult growing up because she often felt as if she were the only one without active parents.
“You feel like you might be missing out,” she said. “You're sitting there wondering, ‘Why aren’t I living with my parents, and why am I living with my grandparents?’”
Avent also explained that in what she calls “grandfamily homes,” the different attitudes one would usually have towards their parents and their grandparents can conflict with each other.
“(My grandma) is old-fashioned,” she said. “That’s where it gets difficult, because you don’t want to argue with your grandparents. That’s what you do with your parents. It’s a generation gap.”
But Avent said despite these initial challenges, she is now closer with her grandparents than many of her friends are with their parents.
“They say that they wish they lived with their grandparents, because they've had so many issues with their parents,” she said. “They ask, ‘Can I live with your grandparents?’”
Although Loretta and her husband are loving and supportive, they still have high expectations for her and her brother’s behavior, as any parent would, Avent said. Loretta promised that for every year of good behavior until the kids graduated from high school, they would receive $100.
Loretta said this was her promise to her grandwonders to ensure their success.
“My word is my honor, and when I make a promise— ”
“She keeps it,” Avent finished.
The Grandfamily Students Club
Despite how they might have felt when they were younger, Avent and Bryant are not alone in their untraditional home structure. According to the 2010 Community Survey by the Census Bureau, about 1 in 10 American children live with their grandparents and 7 million American grandparents live with a grandchild who is under 18.
With these numbers in mind, Avent decided to start a student organization for grandfamilies so students and even faculty could talk about their experiences and build a support community. She held this idea in her mind for years while she attended Scottsdale Community College, yet waited until her transfer to ASU as a junior to start it. ASU President Michael Crow told her that he believed this was the first student organization of its kind in the country, she said.
She said she wanted to wait until she was settled in a university to create this landmark club because of ASU’s club resources and large community.
“This is for the students, because this is an organization that I wish was available when I was younger,” she said. “I know it’s a touchy subject, but I know it would help a lot of students, just letting students know that you don’t have to go down a dark path. … This is a way for other kids who are raised by their grandparents to share their experiences.”
Avent lost no time, and started asking about how she could start the Grandfamily Students Club at her transfer orientation. She worked on it with various members of the ASU community until the ASU Alumni Association and Sun Devil Family Association’s inaugural Sun Devil Family Reunion during the fall 2013 homecoming weekend, when it was introduced to the ASU community.
Friends in High Places
Both Avent and Loretta said their fledgling organization and their grandfamily lifestyle in general would have been impossible without their support system, which is impressive in both its size and its names.
One of Avent's first supporters was Hillary Clinton, who has a personal connection with the family because Loretta used to work as the official liaison between White House staff and the first lady’s staff, among other White House positions, during the Clinton Administration.
In the same year Avent and Bryant’s parents left, Clinton visited the Avent home in Ahwatukee Foothills to celebrate the kids’ birthdays and offer words of encouragement, as reported by an Arizona Republic article written at the time of the visit.
She and former President Bill Clinton are still close family friends with the Avents, and Avent is a pen pal with Hillary Clinton, who Loretta says is constantly cheering Brittany on.
“She is the person who helps Brittany to continue standing,” she said. “She is the inspiration for this whole grandfamily movement. (Clinton) said, ‘Brittany, you are not alone.’”
At this same time, the Avents were also receiving tremendous support from their family, especially from Susie Avila, Loretta's goddaughter.
Loretta said when she first took in her grandwonders, she and her husband were still working full time and needed help transitioning. One of her nieces originally tried to help, though she was much younger and didn’t find childcare appealing.
Loretta explained that when she took Avent and Bryant to Disneyland when they were young, Avila stayed in the hotel with them. This sparked a relationship between Avila and the kids, and Loretta recalled that Avila casually asked if anyone was helping to raise the kids.
“That was it,” Loretta said. “That was on a Thursday. We stayed through the weekend and got back here on Monday … And we got home and she was parked in front of the house.”
Loretta said Avila left her life as a college student in California to help her raise Avent and Bryant, without even being asked.
“That Friday she went and quit her job and signed up to attend ASU,” she said. “(Avila) said, ‘I love you. You are my godmother, I love these children, and whatever you need from me I’m here for you’ … God, I do love her. When I grow up, I want to be her."
Along the way, Avent and her family also received support from colleagues of Loretta’s husband, who was the deputy city manager of Phoenix, including former Arizona Attorney General Samuel “Terry” Goddard and former Deputy City Manager of Phoenix Frank Fairbanks.
Goddard said the club will have great social significance because this is a demographic of people who remain largely unacknowledged.
“What Brittany is doing is fantastic, maybe history-making, in terms of recognizing the large number of kids who are being raised by their grandparents across the country,” he said. “They recognize a very significant group of young people and a very important social phenomenon that is growing rapidly.”
Once she reached ASU, Avent specifically found support for her and her club through Billy-Jack “Grover” Decker, who was the ASU’s community director when she moved in.
Decker said he saw the potential in Avent the moment he met her.
“When I walked her up to her room, there was an instant connection,” he said. “I was not raised by my grandparents, but we have similar personal backgrounds.”
Decker volunteered to be the the club’s adviser because he believed in Avent’s cause of community-making. He said this club not only embodies ASU’s mission for student success but also fills a growing need in society in general.
“It’s your university,” he said. “We want you to go and get an education. But at the same time, we want to you go out and do an amazing things. … We as a country don’t have enough organizations to help people connect and move forward. We like to keep them in the system that produced them. I think Brittany’s organization will be something special.”
During homecoming weekend, Robin Hengl, the senior director of parent programs in the ASU Foundation, was the driving force behind Avent being able to present her new club to the ASU community in the homecoming parade.
She said she welcomes Avent's club as a way to ensure better inclusion in the foundation’s events.
“Our mission is two things,” Hengl said. “One is supporting student success, and the other is creating a family community. So when we see a group who is trying to help connect members of the community to the Sun Devil family, we applaud that effort, and we want to help in any way we can.”
With this encouraging spirit, Hengl and the parent program invited Avent to ride on their float in the homecoming parade and created a banner to better include grandparents in the festivities.
“Now we have a grandparent banner, and they rode on the float,” she said. “(Grandparents) carried the banner, and we were thrilled that the group wanted to participate with us, especially because we are the umbrella group for the Sun Devil family.”
One of the newest members of the club’s support group is Elizabeth Kather, the assistant director of the residential community. After Decker left ASU for other employment opportunities, Kather took over his position as club adviser.
She said she chose to help because, like Decker, she had a personal connection to the issue and a firm belief in Avent's innovative spirit.
“My grandmother was really influential to my growth and education, so it seemed a good fit,” she said. “I definitely could not believe that the idea for this club had never come through before. … (Avent) definitely sees the need.”
Kather, who just finished the club’s constitution with Avent, said it is unique in several ways, including its acceptance of faculty as members.
“They're encouraging and welcoming faculty participation,” she said. “It’s not just this generation. This has been going on for four generations, where grandparents step up and take over when parents have become incapacitated in a way.”
Despite the Avents’ expansive collection of supporters, it seems they have one specific friend in a high place that is monumental to maintaining their drive: their faith in God.
Both Loretta and Avent describe themselves as being very religious, and Avent and Bryant were brought regularly to church since they were little, first by their parents and then by their grandparents.
Loretta said this faith has helped them cope with their large transition and has helped them remain positive.
“We want this to be the legacy that they pass on to their children: not all of it is peaches and cream, but I’m a believer that from birth until you leave Earth, is that God has a plan, and if we get out of God’s way it just works,” she said. “God’s gift to you is life. Your gift to God is what you do with it.”
As Loretta and Avent advance the club, they said their biggest issue is recruitment, because students identifying themselves as being part of a grandfamily requires acknowledging a potentially emotional hardship to strangers.
They have partnered with ASU Counseling Services to provide services to students who don’t wish to share their stories in front of the club, and they hope to someday have an active club that will inspire similar movements on other campuses.
Loretta said they also hope to complete community service projects as a club once it’s developed, as well as create a scholarship fund for grandfamily students attending ASU, which will be established by Loretta selling personal family possessions.
She added that the club wants to reach out to K-12 students who are also part of grandfamilies in order to provide the services the Avents wish they'd had access to.
Loretta certainly enjoyed herself as she posed for more pictures, laughing and telling stories. She casually talked about how her passion for the Phoenix Suns has led her to make cobblers for the team on multiple occasions after they beat her rival teams. Now, some of the Suns players call her “Grandma,” she explained, while her granddaughter laughed more.
In the shade of the trees, the laughter died down, revealing birds’ spring serenades, and everyone just sighed and smiled.
“I just enjoy life,” Loretta said. “You only get to do this once.”
For those interested in joining the Grandfamily Students Club, contact Avent at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her recruitment table outside the Memorial Union at the Tempe campus on April 8 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @mahoneysthename