Imagine the scenario; you’ve raised your kids, and they’ve all left home – you’re enjoying a great social life, travelling and eating out, then out of the blue a phone call changes your life, and you find yourself once again with a houseful of kids, a puppy, a trampoline in the yard, tripping over shoes, bikes and scooters. This is what happened to Karen and Pete Kilgour three and a half years ago.

So here they are today, getting on with it, not only providing full care for their three grandsons; Karen is also Coordinator for Ashburton Grandparent Raising Grandchildren and is a crusader for grandparents throughout New Zealand. 

If you think the Kilgour’s story sounds uncommon, you’re wrong. Grandparents raising grandkids in Mid Canterbury is a lot more common than we imagine, Karen says. “We have 35 or 36 grandparents in our group at present, and there are others out more out there who come along for help with a particular problem, but mostly they’re doing OK without the extra support,” she says.

Sadly, stepping in to stop their mokos going into Welfare following ongoing drug, alcohol and family abuse is how many grandparents find themselves in this position, and that’s how it was for the Kilgours.

A second time around couple, the boys’ mother is Karen’s stepdaughter, but she says, “Family is family. They’re ours. The (stepdaughter’s) family was living in Blenheim, and we knew there were issues, but we had no idea the extent of it until we got that call. The boys were aged 16months, four and five years old at the time and they had nothing, no clothes to speak of; no toys that they owned, no idea if they’d be fed or not – that was hard to see. They’d slept on couches, in cars, often just wherever their parents dossed down.”

With no other extended family to take the responsibility, Karen and Pete brought them home to Ashburton and started creating a stable home life for them. “It was a huge upheaval for all of us. Privacy laws meant that we struggled to get access to doctor’s records, dental records, school and pre-school reports. The mother’s signature was required for all of these, and that was incredibly hard to get. Everything was a hurdle back in the beginning. Yes, of course parents should have rights, but what about the kids’ rights?”

Soon after taking the boys in, the Kilgours went through the courts to get full custody. “We needed everyone to have clarity. The boys can visit extended family, but there can be no arguments, they will always come home.”

Through all their early months of upheaval and drama, Karen was still working at Sims Bakery, still managing to put a smile on her face every morning after spending endless nights reassuring disrupted, frightened kiddies. She retired from fulltime work after Lockdown and became fulltime Nannie.

“This is not like raising your own kids. Kids in this position have seen drug and alcohol abuse, seen their mother beaten, likely been beaten themselves, been hungry and neglected. They need so much more than ‘normal’ kids.” 

The couple drove one of the boys to Timaru for counselling every week for 12 months, and paid for it willingly, but it irked Karen that foster parents, by comparison, had funding available. “It seemed wrong to me.”  So, she started speaking out, to whoever would listen.

In late 2020 a submission was successfully put to government and Karen was selected – just one of three people, nationwide – to take part in a debate with the Select Committee at parliament discussing re-establishing financial support for GRG. The result of this debate was that the extra financial support was granted. Karen achieved this for her GRG Community!

A month later she heard that the debate had been successful, and grandparent would be treated the same as foster parents. “I treated myself to a wee glass of wine, maybe two,” she grins. “I’m very proud of having achieved that.”

On the day I call, she’s making a birthday cake, due to pick boys up for to soccer, swimming and Cubs and she helps out in the classrooms. “They’ve been asked where their Mum is, but they just say their Mum’s different, so they live with Nan.”  Pete does his share too, spending time with the boys and refereeing sports. 

Karen’s role with Ashburton GRG also takes a lot of time. Monthly meetings are held at her home, and she’s always there with whatever help and advice is needed. “Often, I’m just directing people to the right place so they can access help and counselling. We had contact with five new grandparents attend last week, which is unheard of.”   She also talks to community groups, raising awareness.

GRG is not a monetary group, but help is always appreciated. She’s grateful to local businesses and community groups for Countdown and Warehouse vouchers, which are vital to helping new grandparents get set up.  

How does she do it? She laughs. “Honestly, I don’t know how I worked in the early days of it. It’s bloody hard. We’re older, we get tired and titchy. After that birthday party with 14 kids last week I sat and watched two back to back movies and knitted. I might have poured a wine. Sometimes you have to do it.”

“The kids are innocents in all this. Our reward is seeing them enjoying a normal childhood.  They’ll always love Mum and Dad but they know why they can’t be together, and they’re happy.”

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Judy McAuliffe is a writer, and publisher Essence Mid Canterbury. Her experience in media is extensive and includes approximately 15 years as Creative Director for The Radio Network, writing, and managing the writing of radio advertising, mainly in Invercargill and Greymouth. In the late 1990’s she transferred to Christchurch, moving into an Account Management role with 91ZM. In 2007 she and a business partner set up Essence Mid Canterbury, very quickly adapting her radio-writing skills to print media. Judy became sole owner of Essence Mid Canterbury in June 2014. Judy is a ‘people person’ and has found her niche writing feature stories about the community she lives in and the people who live there. She is also available for freelance writing assignments.