Grandma’s House reaches out to children

By Julie M. Graham
The Chronicle


Alex Sutherland / The Chronicle
Athena Boucher, 11, of Chehalis, pieces together a jig-saw puzzle on the parlor floor of Grandma’s House Tuesday.

Centralia, WA - At Grandma’s House, cookies are freshly baked and the closets filled with craft supplies and dress-up clothes. Books for young readers line the shelves. Homemade quilts and wall hangings decorate the chairs and rooms. Vegetables grow in the garden in back and flowers bloom along the white picket fence in front. There’s no computer to play on or television to watch. Hugs come frequently.

That’s the goal of Joyce and Stu Neal, a retired Chehalis couple who created the ministry in the small soft pink house at 237 S.W. Cascade Ave. Grandparents themselves, they wanted to provide gradeschool-age children with a safe place to come for activities and fun.

They used money from the final insurance settlement, received two years ago, 10 years after 18-year-old daughter Shannon’s death in a car accident, and refinanced their own home in south Chehalis to purchase the house in town and start the program.
The phone call about the remaining insurance money seemed to come out of the blue, Joyce Neal said: Having that chunk of money available changed everything.

“We wanted to do some kind of service, but we were totally unaware that (the insurance) was coming, so we were thinking within our own budget. We knew we wanted to do something with children, so we thought about becoming foster parents, even adopting a child ... periodic missions like we’d done before; we talked about a lot of things,” she said.

Neal compared Grandma’s House to a Vacation Bible School, with Bible stories, snacks, crafts, field trips, character development, health and money education, sewing, cooking and other pieces.

“We just try to be Christian grandparents to all the neighborhood kids,” she said.

On Tuesday afternoon, several grandmas — all volunteers, many of them fellow Seventh-day Adventists — were on hand when the children started coming at 2 p.m. Puzzles were out on the floor in the parlor downstairs, craft tables set up like always upstairs, and an individual sewing lesson was soon in progress. Grandma Lynn Owen, who heads the craft room, chatted with one child about what his mom thought of a previous project while helping three children get paint for the pieces of a wooden butterfly magnet.

In the next room, Grandma Carolyn Hollis coaches Melody Boucher, 8, at the sewing machine as the Chehalis girl makes a pillowcase.

“Slower is better,” the Centralia woman reminded her. “It’s just like driving a car. Slower is better until you know what you’re doing.”

Later, they gathered downstairs in the living room for a short lesson about orderliness. Neal had them heap all the shoes on the porch on a small mat and then put on their own without using their hands — resulting in a squiggling mass of legs and feet — to point out it would go more quickly if all the footwear was neatly set out and if they helped one another.

Before she can get to the helium balloon piece, however, another vehicle pulled up outside and several more children jumped out, waving. The ones who have come before — they brought visitors — dash in and 10-year-old Marissa Hagan gave Neal a fierce hug, saying she missed her.

“Grandma” and “Grandpa” are titles at Grandma’s House, just as teachers are “Mr.” and “Mrs.” in school. They keep up on the children’s lives, inquiring after new baby brothers, noting new haircuts, listening to stories, answering questions and heeding “look at this, look at this.”

“It can get hectic, if you’re not used to being around a lot of kids, but it’s very rewarding,” Owen said. The Rochester resident said she’d been immediately interested in helping when Neal told her about it.

The adults aren’t the only ones enjoying themselves.

“It’s really fun,” said Mikayla Graham, 8, whose grandmother signed her up to come. “Crafts, Bible study, all the people here make it fun.”

Hagan and Mary Lou Leal, both 10-year-olds from Centralia, said they were scared coming at first, because it was new, but agreed they have a good time at Grandma’s House.

Another Centralia resident, 7-year-old Tony Ryan-Kelly said his favorite part is making crafts.

Hagan agreed with the crafts, added the food and spoke enthusiastically about the camp at Sunset Lake which Grandma’s House sponsors children to attend.

“Camp is really fun. I didn’t want to go at first, but then it was really, really fun. I got to go horseback riding and trot and gallop,” she said.

Coming to Grandma’s House doesn’t mean children don’t have grandparents of their own. Leal said she has eight between family and the Grandmas and Grandpas.

Grandparents are nice, Hagan and her 6-year-old brother agreed, the ones at Grandma’s House and the ones at home.
“They’re really cool. You get to do lots of crafts with them and cooking and they’re lots of fun,” Graham said.

Stephanie Boucher, who will be a sophomore at W.F. West High School this fall, said her younger sisters, Melody and 11-year-old Athena, have been coming since Grandma’s House started. They’re excited to come Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and go to church with the Neals on Saturdays, said Boucher, who volunteers there.

“We never know how many kids are going to come,” Neal said. “There may be only a few or there may be 15 and then we put up card tables and rotate kids through instead of letting them all go to crafts at once or something.”

She estimated between 35 and 40 children have come since Grandma’s House opened in February of 2002, with more of a routine established during the school year. She and Stu went door-to-door in the neighborhood at the beginning, letting families know what they were about and inviting children to stop by. The first day, they had six boys and girls come, all of them very quiet and polite until they started to relax a bit more, though they remained well behaved, she said.

She does need parents to register their children — the house is open for ages 6 to 12 years — and requires signed permission slips before any field trips, but it doesn’t cost them money; the nonprofit foundation is supported by donations.
“It’s just been amazing. We’ve never been in a real panic for money. There’s been times when it’s been tight, but something’s always come through and we manage. God always sends somebody with something,” Neal said.

But it’s not intended as a child care center, she said. It’s a ministry.

Neal said she grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but left in her 20s. She was discouraged with religion and did a lot of things in the next 20 years she now regrets, such as not going to church, not raising her children in the church and starting drinking, she said. She pretty much turned her back on God.

“But when Shannon was killed ... I knew immediately that God had his arms around me and was going to get me through it,” she said. “I don’t really know how to explain it.”

The insurance settlement was difficult, she said. Because Shannon was 18 when she died and hadn’t left a will, the benefits of her life insurance had to split between Neal and her ex-husband, Shannon’s father. Only initial settlements were made, the situation became very upsetting and she got to the point where she walked away, she said.

But she’d grown up knowing to tithe, or give a tenth of her income to the church, so after she received that early portion, she contacted an Adventist church in the area, she said. She didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do, but the pastor was so nurturing and supportive that they started counseling sessions with him and then attending church again.

Her relationship with God, once cultural, became personal, she said.

She prayed and meditated on what to do with the money from the final settlement. She thought about the talents and gifts she and her husband had and what they could do and remain enthusiastic about for a long time. Several thoughts came to stick out in her mind, such as the reality that families today are often separated by many miles.

Another key point was her own experience: “I started thinking, what I really knew was how to be a grandma,” she said.
The idea of grandparenting children was simple, but the execution became complex, she said, recalling all the work of setting up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and meeting all the other local, state and federal requirements to operate Grandma’s House.

“I just thought I could read stories and make cookies,” she said.

Instead, open hours plus all the behind-the-scenes aspects such as buying supplies, planning and paperwork end up being a full-time job. Stu puts in probably another 25 to 30 hours each week, keeping up computer records, writing the newsletter, doing yard work and keeping a constant eye on the front door open in welcome when Grandma’s House is in session.
The refinancing of their own home combined with the insurance money allowed them to purchase the two-story house just across from Cascade Elementary School, fix up and furnish the building, and provide a six-month operating budget. She didn’t want to have to deal with a renter’s limitations, she said.

And since then, Grandma’s House has grown and evolved. Past volunteers have included a woman who taught Spanish and a man who taught music. New volunteers come in.

Neal said they hope soon to be able to open a second house, perhaps in Centralia, but they want to make sure the foundation is fully stable. The organization is now at the point where it can take over payments on the Cascade Avenue house, but expansion would also require more dedicated volunteers. She also doesn’t want Grandma’s House to get too big, to the point where the children and grandparents can’t connect anymore, she said.

“It’s way more fun for us then it is even for them (the children), I think. It’s just been such a blessing,” she said. “I certainly hope to keep it going until I can’t move anymore, and then I hope someone takes it over and keeps it going.”
For more information about Grandma’s House, telephone 748-9689.
Julie M. Graham covers education and religion for The Chronicle. She may be reached by e-mail at or by calling 807-8232.


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