By Susan Green, Florida Conference…
BOCA RATON – When Connie Siskowski began caring for her ailing grandfather, she was still in grade school in Nutley, N.J.At age 13, she rose early one morning to give her grandfather medication and discovered he was no longer breathing.
“That was really traumatic,” she said. “It had more of an emotional impact than anyone knew about at that time.” She thought she was alone in her experience, and so she dealt with the loss in silence. “You don’t talk about it,” she said. “You just stuff that because there isn’t anyone to talk to about it.”
Now, more than 50 years later, as founder of the nonprofit American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY), she knows how not-alone young caregivers are. At the start of every school year, she wades through hundreds of applications that detail the struggles of kids caring for kids or adult relatives in Palm Beach County and performs triage to decide how many her organization can help.
Though the need sometimes seems overwhelming, the results achieved have been impressive enough to catch the eye of CNN evaluators, who last month named Siskowski one of 10 CNN Heroes of 2012. A public vote conducted via email and Facebook will determine the Hero of the Year, who will receive a $250,000 prize to continue his or her heroic efforts. The top vote-getter will be announced Dec. 2 during a live broadcast to be hosted by CNN journalist Anderson Cooper.
Voting is open until Nov. 28, and up to 10 votes per day per email address or Facebook account are allowed. For information and voting rules, visit www.cnnheroes.com.
Siskowski, 66, has been a member of First UMC, Boca Raton, since she moved to Florida in 1990. Her organization provides an outreach ministry for the church, and Associate Pastor Tom Tift sits on the board.
He said he has been active since 2000 in outreach efforts helmed by Siskowski that previously focused on homebound and family caregiver needs. In 2006, after a national survey turned up 1.3 million youth caregivers in the U.S., Siskowski led efforts to survey middle school students in Palm Beach County. The results? Almost a third of 1,600 sixth-graders bore some caregiving duties at home.
“It’s a pretty lonely feeling to be young and have to hurry home from school and give Grandma an insulin shot,” Tift said. He said some children get up early to feed, bathe and dress a disabled parent or younger sibling before they catch the bus. They have little time for homework or after-school activities. Some drop out before earning their high school diploma.
Tift said church members heard about the CNN award and were preparing to nominate Siskowski when an AACY board member who works at one of the middle schools sent in the form.
Siskowski said it all happened quickly, and she credits prayer. AACY, which has three full-time and three part-time staff members, was struggling financially, and she put in a prayer request at the 9:30 a.m. worship service April 15.
The following day, the AACY board met and a former member dropped by to suggest nominating Siskowski for the CNN Hero recognition. A few days later, CNN called to discuss her work, which includes assistance to more than 500 young people in Palm Beach County. In September, she became a finalist and received $50,000 for her program.
For Siskowski, the experiences of the young caregivers she meets evoke her own memories of caring for her grandfather, who helped her study for confirmation in the Methodist Church.
“He was my hero,” Siskowski said. “We had kind of a special connection.”
Her parents were divorced, and she and her mother lived with her grandparents. Her mother worked full time, and her grandmother was not suited to the caregiving role when her grandfather fell ill.
“It sort of fell on my shoulders,” Siskowski said. “I just did it out of love.”
Unlike many of the young people she works with, Siskowski did not suffer academic setbacks as a result of her caregiving duties. She eventually went on to earn a nursing degree at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a doctorate in educational leadership from Boca Raton’s Lynn University.
However, she knows the demands of caring for others can take a toll beyond the anxiety, stress and fear of losing a loved one. AACY has provided tutors, laptop computers, respite care and camp opportunities, as well as fulfilled specific needs – such as municipal water hookups – to ease the burden on young people.
First UMC members have pitched in, building ramps, donating bikes or hosting holiday celebrations.
Siskowski has advocated on behalf of teens pressured to drop out of school to support their families or who face serious consequences for missing classes or “acting out.”
She remembered a 12-year-old whose mother was disabled after being hit by a drunk driver. The father had to work extra hours to replace his wife’s income, and the family has a younger child at home with an autoimmune disease.
“She was having some behavior problems at school,” Siskowski said of the older daughter. “One of the people at the school made a face at me one day, like, ‘Why are you bothering with her?’ … Educators don’t always look at the back story.”
That girl, now of high school age, is studying to be a chef.
“We’re just so very proud of her,” Siskowski said, adding that she is beginning to see many of the program’s early beneficiaries prepare to attend college. Her association has recruited Americorps volunteers to help them apply for college admission and scholarships.
Siskowski said she has agreements to expand the AACY program to four other states and is talking to agencies in another five. If she wins the top CNN award, she said, the money will be used to reach more caregiving youths.
“This whole thing has been a walk in faith,” she said, “such a walk in faith.”