Stacey Walker was four, his little sister Cymone just one when their mother was murdered in Buffalo, New York. With no father in the picture, the siblings were facing an uncertain life at the hands of child authorities until their grandmother, Shirley Martin, made the choice that she would take them in.
It was a tumultuous time for everyone. The children had lost their mother, Shirley had lost a daughter, and all were grieving. After bringing the children from Buffalo to her home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Shirley had to confront a daunting reality: how to provide for two young children on a nurse’s aide salary. Truth was, she was nearing the end of her career—she was well into her 50’s—and she worked the night shift. Money had always been tight, but now she needed to hire a babysitter to look after her grandchildren while she toiled through the night tending to sick patients and filing medical records in the basement of one of two hospitals in the town.
“Things were tough psychologically for my grandmother,” explains Stacey. “Here she was trying to come to grips with the murder of her daughter and adjusting to the fact that she would once again assume a parenting role for two very young kids.”
“Things were tough financially, as well. My grandmother already lived in a government housing project, and although her salary had been enough to keep her afloat, she now had all sorts of new expenses: clothes, food, toys—all the basics any young child needs, multiplied by two.”
Stacey remembers that his grandmother never complained and tackled her new situation the way she always had—with strength and determination.
“She made a lot of sacrifices for us, and ended up retiring early so she could raise us. She had to buy a car to get us from place to place, another added expense. Before we arrived, my grandmother would walk to and from work.” Stacey recalls. “We barely made it financially.”
What saved them, he says, were the Social Security survivor benefits the children received because their mother had died.
“I bristle when people try to paint Social Security as merely a retirement plan for older folks who didn’t work hard enough to save for themselves,” Stacey says. “Many people have no idea how much survivor benefits mean to families whose head of household has died or is permanently disabled. I know for a fact that we could not have made it without those benefits.”
But thanks to those benefits, and an incredible woman named Shirley Martin, Stacey today is a successful man. He is a Field Organizer for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
Stacey was a success long before he worked for Obama’s re-election campaign. “I was always quite different from other kids in my neighborhood,” Stacey notes. “I had several interests, including sports, music, and debate. Those things cost money; money we didn’t have. But my grandmother always figured a way to make it work.”
Stacey remembers one incident in particular. “As a sophomore in high school, I was selected to attend a leadership conference in Washington, DC. Needless to say, we didn’t have the money for me to attend.
“At the time I had an internship with one of the most well-respected law firms in the state of Iowa. So, on her own—and without my knowledge—my grandmother approached each partner and asked for a donation to send me to the conference. They all contributed. Then, my grandmother persuaded our church to take up two offerings to support my trip.”
The leadership conference proved to be a critical juncture in Stacey’s life. From there, Stacey went on to earn a BA from the University of Iowa in 2010. But his college years were markedly different from those of his peers. In 2006, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America tapped Stacey to serve as their National Spokesperson. In that role, he travelled around the globe to address various groups and advance the organization’s mission. For his efforts, he was awarded the Presidential Service Award by President George W. Bush..
Through the Boys & Girls Club, Stacey learned about Generations United. In 2008, he attended the Third National GrandRally that brought together grandfamilies from around the country to push for national policy initiatives surrounding fairness in federal benefits for intergenerational families.
“At the rally, Donna Butts [executive director of Generations United] approached me and said that there was an opportunity for me to meet with staff for Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa to talk about the need for supportive policies for grandfamilies,” Stacey explains. I did, and after our chat, the Senator introduced legislation that supported our policy goals and eventually became law.”
More recently, Stacey has had the honor to work closely with members of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which involved enacting parts of the President’s economic agenda, including the JOBS Act.
Pretty impressive for a guy whose early life was so tumultuous. And, as he’ll tell you, he owes it all to his grandmother.
To read more inspiring stories of people raised in grandfamilies, download Generations United publication Grand Successes: Stories of Lives Well-Raised today!