Published for Purpose
Author Jeanne Connolly shares the inspiration for writing two children’s books, and the challenges and joys of raising her granddaughter.
To Jeanne Connolly, her granddaughter, Kevie Grae, is her “connection to purpose.” She has been raising Kevie for the last nine years, after Connolly’s daughter, Kelly, walked away from her role as mother when Kevie was 2 years old because of an opioid addiction.
“Connection to purpose means if you don’t have meaning to what you’re doing, then why are you doing it?” Connolly says. “I used to say it to nurses all the time during training. Because it’s not for the glory and it’s not for the money, and the challenges are great.”
Connolly, a nurse for more than 30 years, didn’t hesitate to step in as a dual mom-nana when she knew she needed to, but her decision doesn’t come without its share of both struggles and joys in tow. She and Kevie moved from Fayetteville to Leland in 2017.
“A lot of people say that she’s so lucky to have me, and I say I’m the blessed one because even though my life is crazy and it’s exhausting, I am more content and grounded than I have ever been,” says Connolly, 62. “I think the saddest thing about raising Kevie is that I’m not the fun, spoiling nana all the time now; I’m the disciplinarian and I’m the caregiver.”
Connolly isn’t the only one in this situation in the Wilmington area. The only difference is that she is a grandparent who doesn’t shy away from talking about it. As of 2018, the number of grandparents stepping in to care for their grandchildren skyrocketed over the last decade to 2.6 million grandparents in the United States, with nearly 100,000 of those in North Carolina.
Children who are left to foster care because of their parents’ drug addictions rose 6 percent in the last five years.
“The sad thing is that most grandparents won’t talk about it because they feel that it’s a reflection on themselves – that their child screwed up – and people point their finger too quickly, like they must have done something wrong,” she says. “I’ve learned through these years with Kevie to address it straight on, embrace it head on, answer questions and share my story because there’s no embarrassment. The only embarrassment is the fact that more people won’t come out.
“I’ve always been very honest with Kevie,” Connolly continues. “I never built Kelly up, but I never put her down either. When she asked, ‘Why did my mom leave? Or why did she give me up?’ My response was, ‘Girl, no one gave you up. Your mom gave you to me.’ It was maybe when she was 8 when I told her that her mom left because of her bad choices on alcohol and drugs.”
Connolly has gone as far as publishing two children’s books to express that loving grandparent-grandchild reversed relationship and to spread awareness of the growing opioid epidemic. The Dinner Tree and Fishing with Nana were released by WestBow Press in 2017.
“I’ve always written,” Connolly says. “And I would tell Kevie stories at night and make them up and one was The Dinner Tree, which started with us walking in the field and we come across a brown cow in the field and asked him to share dinner with us. So that’s how the first book originated. I never thought I would write children’s books, but I’m a very good if it rhymes. Honestly, I never wrote the books to make money; it’s been more of a labor of love and therapeutic. They’re just sweet books. … Maybe the books will make a difference to another grandparent.”
Connolly says Kevie was very much involved in the process – especially when the illustrator sent Connolly the first draft of what Nana would look like.
“They made me look like Barbara Bush with pearls around my neck, and Kevie said, ‘Oh no, Nana has to be sassy,” she says with a laugh.
Today, Nana Jeanne is busy getting Kevie to and from school plus soccer practice and Dynamic Footworks classes and struggling together through third grade math homework. On top of that, Connolly also travels to hospitals throughout the county, working as a nurse in the ICU, and helps out with the nonprofit Honor Bridge to promote organ tissue donation in the healthcare system. Last year, she says New Hanover Regional Medical Center, part of Novant Health, did 29 transplantable organ donor procedures in the middle of COVID.
In 2018 U.S. Congress passed the bipartisan Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act to create a pool of resources to support grandparents raising grandchildren.
“The big challenge for me is financial because I’m going through my savings and I went through my retirement,” Connolly says. “I’m not looking for a handout because I’ve worked all my life and this and that. I just think we all need that acknowledgement and affirmation … and just, financially, if there were more resources out there for us.
“But, again,” she adds, “Kevie is my connection to purpose, and I now have the ability to change a life. And I think there’s a saying that sometimes it’s not about what you do in life, but it’s about who you raise. The struggles are great, but the joys are greater.”