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Article: Grandmother steps up after tragedy, now aims to help others

Grandmother steps up after tragedy, now aims to help others

Featured in the Dayton Daily News
Written by Jeremy P. Kelley
January 1, 2021

Four years ago, when tragedy hit Tonya Whatley’s family, she stepped up to help, because that’s what she does. Now she hopes to help in a new way, guiding other grandparents who are suddenly and unexpectedly raising a child. 

In 2016, Whatley’s 2-year-old grandson died from exposure to the opioid drug fentanyl. She was standing at the hospital, still stunned, when authorities said her other two grandsons, age 1 and 3, would be taken by Children Services that day unless family members took them. So she took in 3-year-old Calell, while another grandmother took his 1-year-old brother.

The Dayton region is known for coming together to help one another in difficult times. Throughout the past month, the Dayton Daily News has published the stories of people who have persevered and inspired others during this challenging year.

“When I’ve needed help, I’ve gotten help, and I’m grateful for that,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to be in this world and think they don’t have help.”

Whatley had been an involved grandmother, often taking the kids on weekends at her home in Dayton’s Westwood neighborhood. But she suddenly went from a grandma who liked to travel and was approaching retirement from her job with Dayton Public Schools, to raising a 3-year-old every single day.

It was a financial challenge she hadn’t prepared for, from the $600 a month for daycare, to shoes, clothes, food and other essentials. She said for a few months, the Dollar Tree store was her grocery, because it was what she could afford after paying for daycare.

Four years later, Calell is thriving in second grade at Salem Christian Academy, where he attends thanks to the state’s EdChoice scholarship program. Whatley said last spring’s shutdown was brightened by some Zoom playdates with classmates, but it was a real challenge for him because of the isolation. She said she’s proud of Calell, and that he has loved being back in school this fall because he’s a very social person. 

Isolation is something Whatley said she’s struggled with at times too in the past few years, as she transitioned back to the role of parent.
“I dealt with isolation a lot. My circle didn’t have small children,” she said. “So to go out with people, have dinner, required an additional daycare bill or a sitter. No one meant any harm, but who wants to sit down with a glass of wine with little children running around?"

Whatley retired from her job scheduling school buses for Dayton Public in January, and has now joined Preschool Promise as a parent ambassador. COVID-19 restrictions have limited the group’s public events, but Whatley is calling, texting and emailing grandparents in her same situation to help them find needed resources. 

Robyn Lightcap, Preschool Promise’s executive director, met Whatley when Calell was enrolled as a 4-year-old. She was impressed with Whatley’s drive to help, and had her speak to the group’s board of directors two years ago. 

“Her passion and commitment to the community is contagious, and every time I talk with her I learn about a new way she is showing up for her neighbors, family, and friends,” Lightcap said. 

Whatley is quick to say her work isn’t anything extraordinary. But she runs the youth program at her church, including Vacation Bible School. She used to work with the Dakota Center when her daughter did drill team there. And while she’s raising her grandchild, she also cooks dinner three times a week for her father and three older cousins. 

“I just try to help out when I can and where I can,” Whatley said. “If I see someone who needs some help, I try. I keep a notebook, and I try to find them a resource, so if I can’t help them, I can find someone who can." 

Lightcap said she’s excited Whatley is joining Preschool Promise’s outreach team because she respects how Whatley makes Dayton a better place. 

Whatley aims to start a grandparents support group through Preschool Promise. She said a lot of grandparents are raising kids near Westwood, but there’s not a ton of support in the immediate area. She wants to change that. 

“I don’t do anything that someone else couldn’t do. All of us have it in us to help … and most of us do,” she said. “I just live my life, and to God be the glory if I’ve been a blessing to anyone.”

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