NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Large windows with the sunlight tumbling through, a pair of cartoonish giraffes, miniature flags of various nations and a warm feeling fill this room inside the Harmony Family Success Center on Livingston Avenue.
Inside these walls on the third Wednesday of each month, the center is an inviting space for many of the city's grandparents who are helping raise grandchildren to meet and talk.
Grandparents Tea is a program designed to support many of the city's grandparents who are supporting their children's children.
"It's a place for the grandparents where they feel safe," said center site director Johanna Crespo. "It's confidential. It's someplace they have that support because it's not just you raising your grandkids. There are other situations. There are grandparents who are in charge of the kids all the time because the parents are working two jobs or night jobs. There are parents that for whatever the reason, the person had to be deported or maybe their child is in a substance abuse situation and the parent can't take care of them. So, it goes to the grandparents."
The program, which is run by a counselor from the Family Support Organization of Middlesex County, provides a service to a sect of the population that continues to grow.
According to U.S. Census data, nearly 1.5 million grandparents in the labor force are responsible for most of the basic care of co-residential grandchildren under the age of 18. In the United States, some 6 million grandchildren under 18 are living with a grandparent, including 270,000 in New Jersey alone.
The Harmony Family Success Center is just one of the Puerto Rican Action Board's success stories. It calls itself a "one-stop-shop" that provides a myriad of resources for residents whether they need access to a computer to create a resume, a translator to help settle a matter with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and much more. It's also a cultural hub that hosted a Christmas photo booth, a bingo party, a Christmas movie night and other events last month.
The Grandparents Tea program typically draws 10 or so grandparents each month, Crespo said. They drink tea - coffee and hot chocolate are available, too - and talk about the stress of trying to make ends meet, trying to get grandkids to do their homework and other issues.
Crespo said they not only receive guidance from the counselor but they also often have advice for each other.
"We know the American dream sounds pretty, but the American dream sometimes requires two jobs," Crespo said. "It's just hard. Getting the grandparents taking that role and stepping in, it's a big responsibility."