If an event at Ingels Elementary School calls for participation from parents, Shari Anderson is there.
Goodies for grandparents. Check. Anderson has legal guardianship of two grandchildren who are enrolled at the school.
Muffins with moms. Why not? She’s mothering the kids.
Parent teacher conferences. Halloween trunk or treat night. School council meetings. At a school where the principal literally pleads for parental involvement, Anderson shows up for everything. She’s the tall lady with the reddish hair who enrolled two children at the school in the Hickman Mills district a couple of weeks into the start of the academic year.
“I feel like I’m getting a second chance,” she told me. “When my kids were growing up I really didn’t have a lot of time to do anything because I was in the military.”
Anderson’s engagement in her grandchildren’s lives and school seems admirable even before you learn what she goes through to pull it off.
Anderson, 52, struggles with a chronic form of leukemia called myelofibrosis. It leaves her fatigued and at risk for abdominal bleeding. It is the reason she went on medical retirement in 2009 after 14 years in the Air Force and several years after that working in military-related office jobs. Since then she’s struggled to get by on disability payments.
She took guardianship of her grandchildren in 2012 when their mother, the oldest of Anderson’s three daughters, was unable to care for them. Her middle daughter was living in the Kansas City area, so Anderson brought the children here. Lacking money and a place to stay, they sought help at the City Union Mission and spent a couple of years in the long-term family care program.
Like many of their classmates at Ingels Elementary, Anderson’s grandchildren have moved around. They started out at an elementary school in Kansas City near the shelter. Last spring, seeking a more stable situation, Anderson moved with the children to San Diego and enrolled them in school there. That arrangement didn’t work out, so they moved back to Kansas City.
After a short stop back at the City Union Mission, Anderson stayed for awhile in a motel near Ingels Elementary. She enrolled Isaiah in 2nd grade and Nevaeh in 3rd grade. Then her middle daughter and son-in-law found a rental home in the Hickman Mills School District. Anderson and the grandchildren moved in to share rent.
Isaiah and Nevaeh are happy in their classes and doing well. That may have something to do with Anderson’s coaching. She talks to Isaiah about controlling his temper and counsels Nevaeh about making good choices. She insists they do their homework and read every night, seeking out books at libraries and thrift shops.
“We all sit down and eat dinner together every night,” Anderson told me, when we talked at her home. “Well, we don’t have a table yet,” she amended. But everyone finds a seat somewhere and eats and talks.
Anderson has no car. So unless she can borrow her daughter’s vehicle, she relies on city buses to get to the children’s school and her medical appointments. When we visited she had a cast on her left hand -- the result of a tumble in a rutted parking lot at a neighborhood strip mall. She broke three fingers.
The obstacles seem daunting, but Anderson shrugs them off. Over her lifetime she has dealt with an abusive relationship, substance abuse among family members, homelessness and now illness.
“I’m of the belief that the life experiences I’ve gone through are not just for me,” she said. “If I can offer any encouragement or hope to someone I think it’s my responsibility to share. I’ve never allowed my circumstances to define who I am.”
Her one wish is that life will be easier for her grandchildren.
“Being a grandmother is amazing,” she said. “I was there when Isaiah and Nevaeh were born. There’s nothing more beautiful I’ve experienced in my life than to see them come into the world.”
Anderson wants more than anything to provide stability for her grandchildren. But more changes may be coming.
Anderson controls her illness with daily medications, but eventually she will need a bone marrow transplant. She’ll probably have to spend a few months in Seattle, where she would have the procedure at a Veterans Administration hospital. That will require more decisions about care for Isaiah and Nevaeh; Anderson hopes they can stay in Kansas City.
Even if they remain in Hickman Mills, the children may have to move to a new school next year. Their rental home is outside of the boundaries for Ingels Elementary.
For this school year, the family falls under the protective umbrella of the McKinney-Vento homeless assistance program. A partnership among the federal government, states and school districts, McKinney-Vento provides resources for children who at some point in the school year have met the definition of homelessness. About 200 of the Hickman Mills district’s nearly 6,000 students fit the guidelines.
Anderson’s family qualifies because they were living in a motel when they enrolled in classes. One benefit — a big one — is that children can remain in the same school even if they move outside of its attendance zone. But that privilege expires at the end of the school year.
In facing uncertain circumstances, Anderson and her grandchildren have plenty of company at Ingels Elementary. This is a school where children move in and out of classrooms frequently. Many families don’t even notify the school that they’ve left.
That wouldn’t be the case with Anderson, who loves to drop in at the school and check on her grandchildren.
“To me, everything is about these kids,” she said. “I think their success in school depends on me. I’ve learned that kids need one adult they can depend on.”
That will be her, she said. No matter how many obstacles life throws out.
Barbara Shelly is a free-lance contributor for KCUR. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.