They come in all shapes and sizes, all colors, all cultures and for a variety of reasons. But the one thing grandparents and other relatives who are raising children have in common is that their numbers are growing.
That's why a conference that once targeted grandparents who raise their grandchildren had to expand several years ago to include other relatives, who are primary caregivers to nieces, nephews and cousins.
Judy Russell of Richmond is one such relative. When she was 24, Russell became the primary caregiver for her twin niece and nephew, who were 5½ months old. Russell's sister, who was unable to care for the infants, was contemplating putting them up for adoption.
That idea didn't sit well with Russell, who had been reared by her great-grandmother, Katie Hamilton. Hamilton was 70 when she took in Russell as an infant.
"I do think that because I was raised by my relative, it helped me make that decision," Russell said. "I know God played a role in that decision, too."
When the twins were about 2 years old, Russell's sister gave birth to a daughter, and Russell took her in, too, when the baby was 5 days old.
Although some people tried to discourage her, Russell said, she remembers that someone gave her a poem when she was a child, with instructions to give it to her great-grandmother.
It was about a little boy who walked along a beach, tossing starfish back into the ocean after they had washed ashore with the tide.
When told that his efforts were futile, that he couldn't save them all because there were too many beached starfish, the little boy replied, as he tossed in another, "I made a difference with that one."
"I always told my granny that she saved me, and I had the opportunity to save three," Russell said.
She and her first husband adopted the three children, and soon after, she gave birth to their biological daughter.
Russell has some insight into what her children might go through.
She remembers feeling different in school because she had to explain why she didn't live with her parents. She felt uncomfortable, she said, and she found it hard to fit in sometimes.
"Back in my day, there were only two people I knew of who lived with their grandparents," she said. "Now it is much more common."
The arrangements are far more common than we might realize, according to the University of Kentucky's Doug Burnham, who directs the Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children Training Project.
In this state, he said, there are 11,000 children in the Kinship Care program.
"But you would have to multiply that at least by seven or eight times to get anywhere close to the real numbers," he said, because most arrangements are informal.
Many families simply take in the children without getting state officials involved, even though doing so would make them eligible for a small stipend.
Burnham said he and his brother were raised informally by his grandparents in Alabama for 12 years after his parents divorced. His grandparents provided a stable environment on their farm while his mother, who had moved to the city to work, provided financial help.
Burnham will conduct one of the many workshops at the 2011 GAP conference — Grandparents and other relatives As Parents — which will be March 24 at the Clarion Hotel, formerly the Holiday Inn North, at 1950 Newtown Pike.
He also will moderate a discussion titled "Raised by (Grand)Parents," which will include Russell as a panelist.
The featured speaker will be Charlie Appelstein, president of Appelstein Training, which offers ways to respond to children and youths with emotional and behavioral problems. Called "No Such Thing as a Bad Kid," his talk and a workshop will discuss strategies to develop and cultivate a child's strengths and downplay negative behavior.
Although she wouldn't change anything — not the financial worries or the stress — since she became the primary caregiver for her children, Russell wants to caution those who are contemplating the move.
"It is a personal decision that families have to make," she said. "It is OK to not accept the responsibility if it is not in your heart to do it. Don't feel bad or beat yourself up."
But if you know it is the right thing for you to do, she said, just know that the relationship she had with her great-grandmother, who died six years ago, was special.
"It was beyond what I could have had with a mother," she said. "Their lives would be so enriched by that. The reward is greater than the responsibilities."
That's why she agreed to be a panelist at the conference, something she's never done before. She wanted to share her experiences as both a recipient and giver of care.
"This will be a legacy to my granny," she said. "She lives through me."