The eleventh of thirteen children, born and raised in Chicago, Karen Gillespie learned early to adapt, take responsibility, and always put family first. Karen recalls with joy many happy years growing up in her large family.
“Wow, we had fun. There was always something going on with so many siblings – eight girls and five boys. Over the years we tried to all get together for the holidays at my mom’s home. There could be as many as 50 or more camping out in the house!”
Karen attended Jones Commercial High School in downtown Chicago where she fell in love with Ausbie Gillespie III, a friend of her brothers, who lived in the same apartment complex. Ausbie was also one of thirteen children, and their families were in and out of each other’s homes, growing up together! After high school graduation in 1977, Karen began working for a pharmaceutical company. She and Ausbie married in April, 1978. Later they moved to Zion, a suburb of Chicago to raise their two daughters, Kenisha and Kenyudra.
As Karen reached her 40’s, she looked forward to pursuing new dreams and goals. While still working, she started taking college courses at DeVry University to earn a degree in business administration. After a long career in pharmaceutical sales and marketing, she made plans to leave the corporate world to join Ausbie and open their own business, a Christian book store in Zion. She and Ausbie were proud of their two lovely, adult daughters and excited about being new grandparents. Life was good, and the future looked bright for the couple.
As Karen and Ausbie were preparing to open the book store, their youngest daughter, Kenyudra, called, complaining of a severe backache. Although Karen thought the backache was probably due to the recent birth of their granddaughter, Ayana, she encouraged her daughter to go to the hospital to get checked out. On the way, Kenyudra dropped off the baby with Karen at the store. Shortly after getting to the hospital, Kenyudra went into cardiac arrest. Before Karen, Ausbie and the baby could get to the hospital, Kenyudra was airlifted to a trauma center in Chicago where she was placed on life support. She died one week later of cardiomyopathy.
Karen knows first-hand that the best-laid plans can be destroyed in just a moment.
In shock at the sudden death of her daughter, Karen’s only thought was that she needed to be there for her four-month-old granddaughter, Ayana.
“I did not think about choices or options. I only saw my daughter’s child. Her father was not a part of her life, and Ausbie and I knew we needed to commit to raising her. This was our responsibility.”
Looking back on that awful time, Karen remembers being numb, existing in survival mode, mechanically doing what needed to be done for Ayana.
“My first meltdown came at the grocery store when I went to buy formula, milk, diapers – all the things a baby needs. I was overwhelmed because all the products had changed. There were so many choices. I just lost it,” recalls Karen.
Friends suggested Karen and Ausbie research other options for Ayana, including foster care.
“You’ve gone from a briefcase to a diaper bag,” said a friend. “Is that what you really want?”
Keeping Ayana was non-negotiable for the two grandparents, and their determination made their marriage stronger. A chaplain with the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Ausbie believed their experience gave him more empathy when counseling patients at the hospital.
Karen and Ausbie formally adopted Ayana in 2002. It took almost two years for the adoption to be finalized. They hired a private attorney, declining to work through the Department of Children and Family Services because going through the state may have required Ayana to live in a foster home for a time. After the adoption, Ayana legally became their daughter.
“I have always been ‘mommy’ to Ayana. That is what she chooses to call me,” says Karen.
On Christmas Eve in 2004, Karen and 2 ½ -year-old Ayana were enjoying a family celebration and preparing for Christmas Day. Ausbie, who complained of a headache all day, retired to bed early and missed much of the festivities. The next morning, Ausbie got up from bed and immediately collapsed. Karen called 911, and Ausbie was rushed to the hospital where, after extensive testing, he was diagnosed with a tumor in the brain stem. Ausbie never returned home, remaining in the hospital for emergency surgery and treatment. He died just four months later, in April, 2005, right after his and Karen’s 27th wedding anniversary.
This new tragedy dramatically altered Karen’s plans once again. Back in survival mode, her new reality as a single mom with a small child necessitated she close the book store and return to work for her former pharmaceutical company. She juggled work and caring for Ayana for three more years until a weariness in her soul and spirit caused her to reconsider her future.
“I was on earth and I wanted to get off,” remembers Karen. “I felt the need to move, get a fresh start and determine what I wanted to do next.”
Karen packed up a truck and moved with Ayana to Jackson, Tenn., a place she had once visited on business. She left her corporate position and survived on her savings. “I was always a disciplined saver,” remembers Karen. “Ausbie and I lived frugally and this habit continued as I raised Ayana alone.”
Jackson was a good place to start over. Karen focused her attention on becoming a total advocate for Ayana. When Ayana entered kindergarten, Karen began volunteering at the school every day, a commitment that continued until Ayana was in 6th grade! Karen realized quickly that education and schools had changed since her daughters were in school. Volunteering helped her to navigate this new system and start to reconnect with people. She realized she had isolated herself after her daughter’s death, but it was still a challenge to establish relationships, since she was a 50-year-old mom interacting with parents in their 20’s.
“We didn’t have much in common,” says Karen. “I looked at life differently. I stayed home most of the time when I was not at the school or in church. I isolated myself from my own peer group and did not feel comfortable associating with the younger parents.”
While her time in Jackson was a positive experience, Karen missed city life. Instead of shopping malls, she found corn fields and realized the rural life was not for her. A visit with a friend to Newnan in 2013 proved to be a turning point. Karen liked the surroundings and began researching the area. Fayetteville had excellent schools and seemed a great place to continue to raise Ayana. That same year, they made the move to Georgia.
Feeling a strong need to connect with a peer group, Karen searched online for a local support group for grandparents who were raising grandchildren. She found information on Grandparents and Kin Raising Children, a group that meets twice a month at a local church. Karen immediately got involved and discovered her new passion – to advocate for other seniors raising their grandchildren and to find resources to help them.
According to Karen, many grandparents live on a limited budget and often can’t afford school expenses, including clothing, school supplies and the cost of preparing children for college.
“It is hard for a grandparent to keep saying ‘no, I can’t afford this’ when your grandchild asks to go to camp,” says Karen with regret. “I had to create my own camp environment for Ayana. We went to parks and packed a picnic lunch. I had to be creative to meet her needs.”
As she talks of her new passion to help other grandparents supporting grandchildren, you see the fire in Karen’s eyes.
“My mission is to find all the resources available to help both the children be productive citizens and help the grandparents provide more opportunities.”
Karen knows her sacrifice to raise her granddaughter is well worth any cost. She smiles with pride when talking about Ayana, age 14, who is a stellar student and standout leader at Fayette High School. Ayana was recently nominated by AV Pride, a mentoring program for local students, as a “Young Woman to Watch” and appeared on the cover of the June issue of Fayette Woman, one of 24 girls and women between the age of seven and 25 who are making a difference in our community.
Karen has always been a role model for Ayana.
“My grandmother has been an amazing benefit to my life,” says Ayana. “Half of the things I have done, I wouldn’t have been able to do without her. She has inspired me to go beyond what I think I can do, in terms of academics, sports and helping others. Not only providing my every day needs as a single grandmother, she also helped me love and let love in. She is an astounding person and she could not do all the things she does without her strong faith and belief in God.”
“Ayana is part of my legacy,” says Karen with pride. “I have tried to impart to her what is important – being a strong woman, getting a good education, giving back to the community. She is the most important relationship in my life. I worry a little that at my age, if something happens to me, what will happen to her? But it is in God’s hands.”
This summer, Ayana had the opportunity to go Winshape Camp for a week, the longest time she had ever been away from Karen.
“I was nervous about her trip,” said Karen, “but I told her to have fun and live a little!”
Those who know Karen best are impressed with her energy, talents, passion and love of helping other people.
“Karen is well rounded, loves being around people and loves to learn new things,” says Juanita Byas, Karen’s sister. “She is a great decorator and loves the finer things of life and works daily to accomplish her life goals. Karen has raised a content, beautiful and happy child. I wish the world held more grandparents like my sister.”
Karen’s older daughter, Kenisha, agrees that her mother is an exceptional role model and strong woman.
“My mom has always given me the best advice and has always been there in my time of need for the past 38 years of my life,” Kenisha says. “The saying goes, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ but in this case it took one strong, independent, God-fearing grandmother/mother to take on the job!”
Karen now strives to find a balance in her life.
“For the last 14 years I have put my life on hold to raise this young woman and prepare her for the future. My goal is to establish more relationships with my peers, volunteer, enjoy travel, shopping, beach time and adult conversation,” Karen says with a smile. Recently, she returned to work part-time as an administrative assistant at Fayette Senior Services Life Enrichment Center.
Volunteering is of particular importance to Karen — energizing her and keeping her connected. She has certainly made a difference in Fayette County. Not only does she serve on the board of Grandparents and Kin Raising Children, but she is also president of the AV Pride Village Assembly, helping to mentor and inspire a new generation of leaders. The organization recently presented Karen with the Diamond Award for her dedicated service.
Karen encourages other grandparents who are raising grandchildren to maintain adult friendships and a support network, as well as take care of their mental and physical health. She also emphasizes the joy of volunteering.
“Yes, it is time-consuming raising a grandchild,” she admits. “But there is still time to give back. It is so rewarding. Don’t isolate yourself. Make a difference and keep smiling!”