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How One Grandparent Teaches Grandchildren about Money – and Family

        “…. For many of us, our grandparents were among our earliest teachers and caregivers. They have added immeasurably to the strength of our families, and with compassion and wisdom, they have enriched our lives with the stories of those who came before us. On National Grandparents Day  we give thanks to those who helped raise us and pay tribute to a generation that still inspires us toward brighter horizons….”

— President Barack Obama

Jerry Witkovsky, 84, didn’t need September 9th’s Presidential Proclamation to convince him that grandparenting – as he’s wont to declare in a strong, emphatic voice – “is a sacred trust.”

This became his mantra during a 50-year career with the Jewish Community Center of Chicago (19 years as General Director), where he mentored generations of Chicagoans in how to construct rewarding family lives. After retiring in 1997, he threw himself fulltime into pursuit of his passion: facilitating grandparenting support-groups, and developing joint volunteer/social/study programs for grandparents and local high-schoolers,

And of course: being a doting Grandpa to his own grandchildren, six of them, ages 29 to 10.

Witkovsky, a widower, is hard at work on his first book, The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection (Xlibris Press).    He says he’s seen it happen over and over: “Grandparents who go the extra mile to develop strong connections with grandchildren, have the power to transform the lives of everyone in the family – and this includes healing ‘ancient’ disputes with their adult children.”

This week’s deluge of grandparenting articles confirmed that Witkovsky isn’t overstating the pivotal role of grandparents today – especially when it comes to finances.  From Bankrate.com (Grandma Gives Until It’s Gone):

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 2.7 million grandparents live with their grandchildren and pay the bills that cover their basic needs. That’s up 13 percent from 2000.

Even if your grandchildren don’t live with you, it is likely that you’ll be helping them out financially. Some 62 percent of U.S. grandparents gave their grandchildren money over the last five years — either as a gift or they paid bills for their necessities — according to research from the MetLife Mature Market Institute. On average, MetLife says grandparents spent $8,289 on their grandchildren over the last five years.

High-income grandparents were even more generous, giving an average over the last five years of $23,068 toward long-term savings and investments, $8,276 for education and $6,742 for a down payment on a grandchild’s home.

Some 43 percent of grandparents reported that they were helping out in the face of the economic downturn, with 34 percent admitting that helping grandchildren reduced their own financial security.”

Witkovsky’s approach to helping his grandchildren in this tough economy is both simple, and, many have told him, ingenious. The idea came to him about three years ago. “Folks kept telling me how worried they were about their ‘legacy,’ in terms of both money and values. I thought – why not impart a legacy while you’re still around?”

Thus was born the Witkovsky Living Legacy Foundation.

It’s not a foundation in any conventional sense; no lawyers were involved. And Witkovsky, while he’s endowed it generously, is no Grand-Daddy Warbucks. (He insists this project can be a meaningful whether it’s seeded with $250 or $25,000).  Now here’s the rad part. The Living Legacy Foundation’s Board of Directors and its sole beneficiaries are one and the same: the Witkovsky grandkids.   It’s they who decide on each other’s requests for funding. No one else – not their grandfather, not their parents – has veto power, or any say in the matter.

Applicants must present a proposal to the Board (aka all their siblings and cousins over the age of 13) explaining the program, activity or supplies they want underwritten, and how it would add value to their lives and careers; what the associated costs are, what percentage they’re asking the Foundation to pay for, and how they plan on covering the rest.

Proposals are typically reviewed via group emails, unless the timing coincides with a holiday or family celebration.  Then the cousins take temporary leave of the festivities to convene behind closed doors.  (Says Witkovsky with unbridled delight: “And boy do I love the sounds of laughter and energetic debate that come through those doors.”) The vote must be unanimous for funding to be offered.

Each grant requires careful follow-up. The Board evaluates its granting process to ensure it is fostering connectedness, not conflict.  And the recipients are expected to give detailed reports about their experiences.

So far, the Foundation contributed towards the tuition of grandson Ethan (28) when his scholarship funds to attend rabbinical school were suddenly cut. It paid for Ethan’s brother. Benny (23), a recent Vassar grad, to journey to the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a course he was taking on immigrants’ rights. Kathryn (26), a special-events coordinator at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, was funded for a review course, in preparation for taking the GMATs.  A rather substantial sum recently went to her sister, Jessica (29), an L.A.-based exotic-animal trainer/snake wrangler, for a dream trip to Africa with other professionals in her field. Jessica will cover half the hefty costs; the Foundation will subsidize the rest.

And the biggest compliment to the Foundation’s founder?  Jessica keeps urging Grandpa Jerry to come along.

Witkovsky laughingly says this is one bonding experience he’ll forgo.  Instead, he’ll attend the Bat Mitzvah of another granddaughter, Merete, where he will present her with a seat on the Board of Directors and full voting rights.  (The youngest Witkovsky grandchild, Aidan, still has three years to go.) He’s also readying a special gift: “Three mason jars, to teach her the importance of saving, spending, and doing good works – and a small monthly contribution for her to apportion as she chooses.”

He has visions of a day when his grandchildren will have the means to fund the Living Legacy Foundation themselves, build in a philanthropic component, and pass on the tradition to future generations. But for now, says Jerry Witkovsky, the most important part of his legacy is the laughter and warmth of far-flung siblings and cousins, sharing their experiences and engaged in a common purpose.

Readers, weigh in: what did a grandparent teach you about money – or about family, or life in general?

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