On a cold January night two years ago, Regina Cappelli, a single grandmother raising two young grandsons, got the call from her local county child welfare agency.

Another grandchild — an infant — had just been removed from Cappelli’s daughter, also the mother of the other boys. Come get the baby, or he would go into foster care, she was told.

Overwhelmed and unprepared, Cappelli called Karen Barnes, another single grandmother raising a grandchild.

“I was devastated and I was in tears,” the Delaware County woman recalled. “When you get these kids, you get the clothes on their back and that’s it. I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’”

Her friend wasn’t just sympathetic. She was outraged.

“Karen said, ‘That’s it! Something’s got to be done!’”

That night, Barnes got on social media. The next day, when she showed up at Cappelli’s home, the grandmother couldn’t believe her eyes.

“She filled up my living room!” said Cappelli, now raising her three grandsons. “Four contractor bags full of clothes, diapers out the wazoo, formula, a Pack ‘n Play, a stroller, blankets galore, wipes. I couldn’t imagine something like that from just overnight.”

Barnes was also amazed by the robust response her posts received. She took it to heart.

“I said to myself, ‘I have a gift and I am definitely being called,’” Barnes said. “’I can do this.’”

And thus, Grands Stepping Up (GSU) was born. A nonprofit organization, GSU provides support to grandparents raising their grandchildren and kinship guardians raising their family members.

“Everything I do and try to empower others to do comes from saying yes,” said Barnes, 58.

For this former volunteer program coordinator who had to stop working due to a chronic gastrointestinal condition, saying yes meant taking emergency custody and eventually adopting her granddaughter, Ellianna, now 9. It came to mean seeing other guardians who needed help, just like she often had, and deciding to do something about it.

Grands Stepping Up has come a long way since it started in 2020.

The program runs Denis’ Pantry, a place where any member of the Delaware County community and grandparents from anywhere can come for food, clothing, and baby goods. GSU estimates the pantry served about 500 families last year. It is located in the basement of Llanerch Hills Chapel in Havertown and named after Barnes’ brother, who died of COVID-19.

But Grands Stepping Up has expanded in other ways, too.

The group has partnered with other organizations like the Main Line Art Center and the Kiwanis of the Main Line to provide free art programs for the grandkids. GSU has also helped provide holiday meals for hundreds of grandfamilies.

GSU now has a legal clinic with local family lawyers offering their services on a sliding scale. There are three licensed therapists volunteering their services for trauma-focused counseling for the children and their guardians. The group also has been able to provide some financial assistance.

Often, GSU will put out a special request on its Facebook page and get it granted, like the funds raised to pay for a tombstone. Their appeals are seldom ignored, Barnes said.

“I can tell you we always have our donors who come through for us,” she said. “A lot of people have been touched by so much stuff in their lives, they want to come forward to help.’'

A lot of the grandparents raising grandchildren are living on fixed incomes. Some who do get governmental support say it is meager, but they are reluctant to get more involved with the child welfare system, even though it would mean more aid.

Some profess a lack of trust in the foster care system. They say they don’t believe the intrusion would be in the best interest of their families. Others feel they’re to blame for their offsprings’ problems that rendered them unable to care for their own children.

“I was so mortified, embarrassed. I was thinking this was my fault,” Barnes said.

The bottom line, they say, is many of these family caretakers are struggling.

“We truly are, as grandparents and most importantly the children, the silent victims of the opioid epidemic and the mental-health crisis in this country,” Barnes said. “We are the silent victims that no one was even considering because we’re all hiding.”

But with a group like Grands Stepping Up, they’re no longer alone. They are helping each other.

“It’s like a parenting organization for grandparents,” said Mary Eileen Johnston, 62, a Havertown grandmother raising her 4-year-old grandson. “I know they’ll always be there for me even if it’s just to ring and say, ‘I need to talk.’”

Johnston discovered GSU on Facebook about two years ago. She stopped by the pantry to check it out, bringing some items to donate, and got to know some of the people active in GSU. A church organist who lost work when many congregations stopped in-person services, Johnston was able to find recreation opportunities for her grandson from GSU’s partners. That’s included arts supplies and programs through the Kiwanis and the Main Line Art Center and dance lessons donated by Twirl, a Newtown Square dance studio. And Johnston has become a pantry volunteer.

Community members have heard about GSU and decided to pitch in, like Amie and Jim Cannon, a Havertown couple who adopted five children from the foster care system. Jim Cannon has extended his Cannon Handyman Services to fix grandparents’ heaters. Amie, meanwhile, helped run a project in which the grandchildren grew tomatoes that they presented to the grandparents.

“It’s kids learning to give back,” she said.

Kathy Baggio, 68, a retired medical transcriptionist from Secane, is also a pantry volunteer and chair of GSU’s support group. Raising her grandsons, ages 12 and 17, GSU has helped with desperately needed car repairs, utility bills, and funds toward a housing security deposit.

“There’s definitely not enough support for the grandparents, and I’m not saying that because I am one,” Baggio said. “A lot of grandparents have given up their savings, if they had any. They are on fixed incomes, and things have become so much harder out there.”

Many of these families also have mental-health needs.

Beth Tyson directs GSU’s trauma-focused therapeutic services. At present, three licensed therapists offer counseling at no charge, but Tyson hopes to find others who will also volunteer services. Many of the children have experienced trauma and need mental health, but many of the grandparents could use help as well, said Tyson, a child trauma consultant and author.

“There are so many unique challenges that come along with raising your grandchild,” she said.

In the coming year, she is planning on introducing webinars on trauma-informed parenting for these guardians, as well as hopefully yoga and meditation classes.

Expanding mental-health help and being able to offer more much-needed financial support are two of the ways Barnes would like to see Grands Stepping Up grow. Last year, the nonprofit got its first grant — about $20,000 from the Phillies — and Barnes hopes to apply for more.

All in all, Grands Stepping Up has done pretty well for a group that got started from a Facebook call for help. As much as it’s come along, its roots are still in the family. Chelsea Barnes, one of Barnes’ daughters, is her vice president. Randi Kobielnik, her oldest offspring, is her chief operating officer. Ellianna, the granddaughter she adopted, is one of her volunteers.

So is Ellianna’s mother. In the years since she had the child when she was 17, the young woman, who did not wish to have her name used, said she has turned her life around.

“I’ve been clean for six years, I’m active in my daughter’s life, and I’ve rebuilt my relationship with my mother, my sisters, and my daughter,” she said. “A lot of my mom’s grandparents and volunteers know I’m Ellianna’s mom, and that I was a drug addict and I’m clean. It gives them a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, like, ‘Maybe this could be for my family, too.’”

Barnes says she was touched by the help she got along the way. It inspired her. It still does.

“I appreciate everyone who has ever done anything for me and my granddaughter, but I recognized I had a vision that was greater and bigger. I knew we could help better. I knew we could do more. We could get more people involved to make more of a difference,” said Barnes.

“It’s just the power of saying yes and not giving up.”

For more information about Grands Stepping Up, visit https://grandssteppingupinfo.com/ or call 610-355-6362.