Waiting and watching on her front porch, 47-year-old Barbara Hopson noticed the car passed by several times before it stopped. A police detective got out, walked up to her, and changed her life and the lives of her four grandchildren forever.

Hopson had felt sick, worried sick, all morning. Her daughter -- single and the mother of one little boy and three little girls -- was living with an abusive boyfriend and involved in drugs.

"She had called me the night before," Hopson said, "and said she wanted to come home. I asked her if she had bus fare and she said no. She said she didn't feel safe where she was and she was going to leave her boyfriend."

Instead it was a detective who showed up, telling her the young woman had died of a drug overdose. "Some people have told me she was killed," Hopson said. "The police said it was an overdose."

The oldest child was in grade school. The youngest was a toddler. All had been living with Hopson, but now she was the one completely responsible for their care -- a situation nearly 2.5 million grandparents find themselves in, according to 2007 Census Bureau data. Now she was the one who had to deal with not only her own grief but with the grief of four young children mourning the loss of their mother.

It's been 10 years since that day. Ten years that, Hopson admits, "haven't been a piece of cake."

"It can get bitter," she said. "It can make you want to give up. But they're my grandchildren, and I can't see them any place but with me. I don't want them in the foster care system because I love them. I really love them."

Over that decade, what have been the keys to the Hopson family not merely surviving but truly succeeding? To that shattered household becoming a stable home?

"First, you need to stay 'prayed up,'" Hopson said.

And, second, "you need to get help."

Maintaining the bond

"I joined a grandmothers' group," Hopson said, "and it got me in contact with the Kinship Care Resource Network. That was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I had been doing this on my own, and it was overwhelming. I didn't know where to reach out for help."

Where Hopson ended up -- where those prayers led her -- is a program of the Catholic Family Center of the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y. Nationally recognized -- last year it won Catholic Charities USA's Family Strengthening Award -- KCRN has worked with some 800 families with a non-parent member who's providing "kinship care."

Most often, said program manager Jennifer Taylor, it's a grandparent who is the caregiver but, in every instance, kinship care "is a tremendous act of love."

"The parent might be deceased," she said, "or incarcerated. There could be a history of mental illness or child protective service [involvement]. There could be drug abuse."

Or, Taylor added, in these times, it might be a single parent -- or two parents -- in the military who are being deployed overseas. Or a family is split up for a while because a single parent has gone to a different state looking for work.

Whatever the particulars, the program offers help to those providing "nonformal kinship care" which, she explained, means KCRN "isn't part of the foster care system. Foster care is 'formal.'"

"Because the family bond is maintained," she said, "because those family ties aren't cut and a member is still involved through that connection, we've seen a better outcome than with foster care."

And it costs the state less, too.

So what is it that the Rochester diocese -- and other dioceses across the United States with similar programs -- is offering? While the specifics may vary, KCRN provides information and referral, case management, education, counseling, social activities for adults and children, support groups and mentoring, legal assistance, financial counseling, individual and systemic advocacy, respite care, child care, transportation, and intergenerational activities.

The list is long because the needs are many.

"A grandparent's first thought may be 'I need to care for this child,'" Taylor said, "but the second one is 'What do I do now! How do I help this child?' We walk them through it. We're here to help them get the resources they need."

Sense of pride

And, she joked, the KCRN staff "speak social work," which comes in handy when dealing with state and other bureaucracies. That's so because a grandparent might not know what to ask for, or clearly understand what's being offered.

Even in the case of a grandparent who had been doing a lot of the child-rearing -- as with Barbara Hopson -- the concerns and the responsibilities increase sharply when that family member takes over full care.

What advice does Taylor have for a grandparent or other family member who's beginning kinship care or will be beginning it soon?

"Stop and take a breath," she suggested. "It can be overwhelming. You may be thinking 'I know about the grandparent role, but what am I going to do now?' There are resources to help you. You can call our office and check out our website. You can ask the United Way in your area."

"Realize you're not alone," Taylor said. "There are resources and services that are very sensitive to your situation. There are caring people who understand your needs and will help you and the children you're taking care of."

And just as those in the field know what help is available, they know a lot of success stories, too.

"Out of a difficult situation, there's a special kind of bonding between that child and that grandparent," Taylor said. "The grandparent has a sense of pride in that child. Maybe the kinship care began when he or she was only a baby and now is an older teen or in college or out and successful in life. The pride -- it's tough to find the words to put it in.

"What grandparents taking care of their grandchildren are doing is a wonderful thing. A really wonderful thing," she said.

Facts & Resources

What is "kinship care"?

The Child Welfare League of America defines it this way: "The full time care, nurturing and protection of children by relatives, members of their tribes or clans, godparents, stepparents, or any adult who has a kinship bond with a child."

How many kinship care grandparents are there?

The Kinship Care Resource Network reports that some 4 million children live in U.S. grandparent-headed households. More than 1.2 million grandparents are primary caregivers. The majority are between 50 and 64 years old.

Where can a family go for kinship-care information and help?

What prominent American is a product of grandparent kinship care?

President Barack Obama! Born in 1961, Obama lived with his grandparents from 1971 until his high school graduation in 1979. It was his grandmother, Obama said, "who taught me about hard work. She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me." Called "Toot" by her grandson (from the Hawaiian word for grandmother), Madelyn Payne Dunham died last year just two days before Obama was elected president.

Bill Dodds and his wife, Monica, are founders of the Friends of St. John the Caregiver (www.FSJC.org). He writes from Washington state.