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This International Women’s Day, award-winning SA volunteer and grandmother of six, Marg McClure, is choosing to challenge two things: the lack of support for grandcarers who pick up the pieces when families fall apart, and the lack of respect society affords to the experience and skills of older women.

South Australia’s Marg McClure is not one to rest on her laurels.

Winner of both the Premier’s Award for Outstanding Service and the For Good Foundation’s Hunt for a Hero Award in 2020, the retired primary school teacher is a grandmother of six who volunteers three days a week at Grandparents for Grandchildren SA (GFGSA) – a non-profit that supports grandparents experiencing emotional, financial and legal pressures that may come with caring for grandchildren.

“It’s always encouraging to receive the recognition,” Marg says of the awards. “I do appreciate and value the acknowledgement, but I also feel that it validates the work of the whole GFGSA team – it’s always a cooperative, combined effort.”

Marg, who has volunteered at GFGSA for almost three years, says every interaction that helps in some way to lighten the load of grandcarers is a gift.

“The responsibility of taking on the care of grandchildren when the parents are unwilling or unable to do so comes at enormous personal cost to the carers,” she explains.

“That can include emotional, physical, social and financial stress, but they do it because they can’t countenance the alternatives for the children, which could be foster care, residential care or separation from siblings, which in many cases compounds the stress and trauma that characterise their young lives.”

Marg says the primary carer role these grandparents and kinship carers take on is often “relentless and exhausting.”

“It can be quite overwhelming,” she says. “A lot of the children have experienced trauma or are coming to them with a range of issues.”

“To have a little child or a teenager in your care when you’re in your 60s or 70s is pretty challenging. And it’s often not just one child – some clients have many in their care.”

Part of Marg’s support role is to listen to the stories of these grandcarers in order to provide information and referrals to service providers as well as supporting them in meetings such as those with the Family Law Courts. Some of the stories she hears are heartbreaking.

“One of the most hurtful parts for our clients is the way their own children, the parents of the young ones they’re caring for, can treat them. They can suffer a lot of abuse – it could be the drugs and alcohol, but it’s pretty devastating.

“Other times, some people might suggest that they must’ve been a bad parent to produce a child who’s turned out the way they have, which is also devastating.”

“It’s a hidden shame really,” Marg continues. “So often these grandcarers tell me, ‘I’m doing this on my own, nobody’s helping me.’”

“When you’re a grandparent on a single disability pension, you can’t manage without support. The role of these carers is not recognised as it should be – they are being forgotten.

“I wish the general public, government and service providers could hear the stories we hear of family members making enormous sacrifices to improve the lives and futures of these children.”

Lending a hand

The Wyatt Trust has partnered with Grandparents for Grandchildren SA since 2019, providing financial assistance through the Grandcarer’s Supplementary Education and Sports Fund which helps  grandcarers on low incomes to purchase essential education-related items for the grandchildren in their care.

“Grandcarers have some unique challenges, often navigating complex family dynamics and systems,” Jo Edwards, Grants Manager at Wyatt explains.

“Wyatt recognises that many grandcarers are already on low incomes and that out-of-pocket school costs can contribute to further hardship. The fund is practical and flexible support and forms part of a bigger connection with the supports available through GFGSA.”

To date, Wyatt has contributed $20,000 which Marg from GFGSA says can make an “unbelievable difference”.

“The grandcarers are so grateful for the support,” Marg says before sharing thank you notes from two GFGSA clients which read:

‘Our grandson is 14 years old and has been in our care for seven and a half years. We’re both pensioners and we are so appreciative and overwhelmed by your financial support.’

And the second:

‘To be able to send my lovely granddaughter to school kitted out like all the other children is a big thing, the relief of this expense means so much.’

“This reinforces our belief at GFGSA that this support can be life-changing,” Marg says.

“Anything that helps these children to be less disadvantaged than they’ve already been makes an unbelievable difference.”

Choose to challenge

For her own part, Marg has no plans to scale back her volunteering commitment at GFGSA.

“I’m 71, but age is just a number and has no bearing on how I live my life,” she says.

“I want to keep challenging the stereotype. I want to see a re-establishing of respect for the maturity, experience and skills of older women who have so much to offer society in the paid and unpaid workforce.”

“I’m the oldest one in the organisation here, but there are a number of younger women who’ve been volunteering here for many years while they continue to look for paid work,” Marg explains.

“Many of them are finding that because they’re in their 40s, 50s or 60s it’s not easy to step out into society and be considered for roles. I think that’s a shame because lived experience is a hugely valuable commodity.

“I like to think that personally, I can make a useful contribution for many more years and show that age and gender are immaterial when it comes to making a meaningful contribution to the lives of others.”

 

The theme of International Women’s Day 2021 is ‘Choose to Challenge’. Read more here: https://www.internationalwomensday.com/

Learn more about the work of Grandparents for Grandchildren SA here: https://www.gfgsa.com.au/