“Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do. Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.” – Alex Haley
Connie Lukens was living in Sheridan, WY working as a civil servant for the VA when her oldest daughter, Jen, had her first baby in Dickinson, N.D.
And just like that, Connie’s life was on a completely different path.
“I travelled to Dickinson for the birth of Dillan,” Connie remembers. “He had to have a tiny heart monitor because of some complications. Looking at him, so little and so beautiful, I realized that I could not leave him.”
Connie reached out to her job and asked for an extended leave to stay with Dillan, but faced some push back.
“I just said, well then, I’m putting in my notice and I will take a deferred retirement and got started getting things in order to move to Dickinson!”
The impact of that little grandbaby on Connie’s heart says so much about how she feels about her role as a grandmother.
“You can’t get time with grandbabies back,” Connie remarks.
Dillan is now in school and has a younger sister, Hannah, who stays with Connie while Jen works. And, on top of tending her grandchildren, Connie has accepted other kids to join her small daycare and now, Grandma and Papa are over run with grandkids and adopted grandkids.
“When grandpa comes home for lunch in the day, everyone is so excited!” says Connie. “We are both Grandma and Papa to all of the kids.”
One of the children that Connie tends has autism. She says that having a child with different needs and different ways of playing and interacting with the world, has given her the chance to teach her grandchildren important lessons.
“I think the most important thing that I can teach my grandchildren is to learn to get along with others,” Connie explains. “I want them to be kind and unafraid of people who are different.”
Connie recalls how having a person with autism in her home has helped her teach those lessons.
“The kids are so accepting and learn quick,” Connie explains. “When this little boy gets off the bus and comes into my home, they used to be loud and excited to see him. They quickly figured out that too much noise was overwhelming to him, so now they tone it down. When he comes in the door they greet him and read his cues. They talk slower, try not to get too excitable, they wait for him to respond.”
Hannah and Dillan have gotten used to playing with a child with autism and are kinder for it, Connie is proud to say. They realize that their friend has a slower response time, sometimes when you ask him a question, he does not answer right away. Sometimes it seems like he is in his own world but Connie wants them to know it’s still ok to ask him to play.
“I want my grandkids to be patient with kids who are different than them. I think the way that bullying starts is when kids think that being different is bad and wrong.”
Connie affectionately refers to her grandkids as “country kids” as they live in a rural area right outside of Dickinson.
“Oh, those country kids like to run, jump, get dirty, and play with all of the animals out there,” laughs Connie. “When they come to my place they are coming into town. They have to worry about things like traffic.”
Connie is amazed at how acclimated to the cold her grandkids are. Without a second thought they will put on a few layers and be outside in below freezing weather. That’s just living in North Dakota they tell her.
And Connie is happy to be here with them, sprinkling stardust over their lives of and helping them discover who they are, where they come from, and what they one day can become.