EDITOR'S NOTE: This story appeared in The Daily Gazette in January 2007. The story carried the headline, "Grandmas hope to halt cycle of crime -- Women form support group, strive for better lives for grandchildren"
SCHENECTADY -- If at first you don't succeed, try again with the next generation.
That's what a group of city grandmothers is doing, trying to stop the cycle of crime with their grandchildren -- after failing with their own children.
They organized a group, dubbed the Bitch & Moan Club, after meeting each other at their grandchildren's ballet lessons at QUEST, an arts outreach program for troubled city youth. Now while their grandchildren practice pirouettes, the club members huddle in the back to commiserate about their never-ending lives as parents.
At first it was just a way to vent. But it slowly developed into a support group, with stories of inspiration and success instead of just worries about another failure. Now, they're writing those stories down, in hopes of publishing books that will help others benefit from the wisdom of too many years of parenthood.
"I didn't want to raise any more kids. I still don't," said grandmother Gloria Nelligan, 37. "But, I mean, when's it going to stop? I'm trying to break the cycle of abuse, of violence, for all my children."
That didn't work with her first child, a girl who saw her stepfather viciously beat her mother for years. Nelligan eventually left the man, but she thinks it had already had an indelible effect on her daughter, who grew up angry and ready to fight.
At age 18, she was pregnant, smoking marijuana, refusing the go to school or follow her mother's rules. One day, she moved in with drug-addicted friend, leaving her baby behind.
Nelligan took him in without question, saying she could give the boy a better life.
"They think life in Schenectady means selling drugs, selling themselves, drinking and drugging. They don't realize they should go to school and make something of themselves," Nelligan said. "This is my grandson and I am willing to do whatever it takes to keep him from having to grow up this way."
She's hoping that Sha'hiim will have a far different childhood than his mother. Nelligan now lives alone, saying she recognized she was attracted to abusive men. She's taken years of parenting classes, battered woman counseling and anger management lessons. She went to college, finishing all but the last semester before she had to quit to take care of her grandson, now 2. She hopes to return to college when he starts school, and plans to open a small restaurant.
But for now, she hopes her story will inspire other parents.
"They think they have to settle for this: the streets, all the chaos," she said. "I thought, if I could tell them life gets better, you just gotta want it, maybe that will make a difference for them."
Other members of the Bitch & Moan Club have equally moving stories to tell. An 81-year-old woman decided, eight years ago, to return to the parenting world because her son had fathered but abandoned a baby girl.
After she adopted the child, then 3, a blood test proved the child was no relation of hers. But the girl's biological parents didn't want her. so the honorary grandmother decided to keep the girl and make one last effort at lifting a child out of the ghetto.
Another mother is caring for four grandchildren and wants to use her story to lobby the state government to give grandparents more rights. Iris Williams argues that she should get paid as a foster parent even though the children are her kin.
"Some of these people are broke. We need to look at legal change," said Judy Atchinson, who runs QUEST and provides the supplies needed for the book-writing group.
Williams has already written her first book, which earned the group of $500 grant from the AIDS Council. The book doesn't address any complicated or difficult topics: it's simply a lullaby for a young child.
One of the grandchildren illustrated the book, "Oh Mister Moon."
Williams has high hopes for the club -- she wants them to write so many books that they get rich. But Atchinson, whose arts center has completed several other self-publishing projects, says riches are unlikely.
"But the stories are lovely," Atchinson said. "'Oh Mister Moon' could be really lovely for a children's book, and Gloria's stories -- the others have learned so much from her. I think she has a full book in her and I'd like to see it, geared for teenagers, maybe."
Nelligan isn't devoted to the idea of writing a full-length nonfiction book. But she's dedicated to it, for the same reasons that she took in her grandson without hesitation when her daughter abandoned him.
"I don't want to write, so much as I want to make a difference in a kid's life," she said.