A Grateful Grandson Becomes the Caretaker

Nov20CN_Genearations WEB
Photo by Roger Miller | The feeling’s mutual: Darlene Waters and grandson Justin both appreciate where they’ve been, and where they’re going.
Photo by Roger Miller | The feeling’s mutual: Darlene Waters and grandson Justin both appreciate where they’ve been, and where they’re going.

BY ROGER MILLER | Darlene Waters, 67, struggled with her iPhone in the lobby of the Hudson Guild Community Center — so she asked for help from her grandson Justin Waters, 25. Dressed in jeans and a hoodie, he swiped and tapped a few times on the screen, and the problem was fixed. This sort of interaction has been routine since Justin got a job working as a systems analyst at Hudson Guild. But for years, their roles were reversed.

When Justin was born, Associated Child Services called from the hospital to ask her to take custody of him. Waters didn’t want to go into specifics, but said her son was just too young at the time, and that his girlfriend was living on the streets and didn’t want the responsibility. So, with the help of her own mother, Waters raised her grandson in the same three-bedroom apartment where she had grown up (in the Elliott-Chelsea Houses, on 26th St. & Tenth Ave.).

Their situation is far from unique. In 2011, almost eight million children in the U.S. —10 percent of all U.S. kids — were living with a grandparent, according to a study published this September by the Pew Research Center.

But it’s been a long time since Waters cooked for her grandson, dressed him and walked him to school and back. These days, it’s Justin who helps her with her phone and computer, carries her groceries and contributes financially.

Every month, Justin gives a portion of his salary to his grandmother. He said he didn’t always have this kind of relationship with her.

In 2011, Justin was working on a bachelor’s degree in entertainment technology at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, when his great-grandmother died. He said he dropped out in part to comfort and support his grandmother, and in part because the loss was so devastating that he couldn’t focus on school.

“That was the darkest day for us,” he said. “But we grew closer afterwards. It made me realize how much I appreciate her, and that I need to take more time with her.”

Justin said he plans on returning to the same college to finish his degree in a year, after he finishes up some projects with Hudson Guild. He said he wants a higher paying job, maybe working behind the scenes in movies. For now, though, wherever Justin goes, he said his grandmother is coming with him. As soon as he can, he said he wants to move her to a safer neighborhood.

Waters laughed and asked, “Where are you going to find a safer neighborhood than this?”

Both she and her grandson said that the Hudson Guild community has played a huge part in Justin’s upbringing. Since he was three, she said Justin was acting in the community theater at the Hudson Guild.

“He was never out on the corner,” recalls Waters. “He was always teaching me computer stuff, acting and playing on sports teams.”

She said she also had occasional help from her son Andre, Justin’s father, who would sometimes take him on weekends.

“People assume that kids like me were left by parents who couldn’t deal with the responsibility,” said Justin. “But my father did have a presence in my life. He hung out with me on weekends and took me out for haircuts. The reality is, some parents just need more help than others, and that’s what grandparents can provide.”