Community Let's Hear It


Hundreds of children in Palm Beach County are youth caregivers

Jacob Gutierrez helps care for mother, grandmother
Posted at 9:42 AM, Apr 17, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-17 10:26:00-04

"Sometimes I just want to go back to when I was a natural kid and didn't have to worry about all this stuff." ~ Jacob Gutierrez

Life can deal some deafening blows. But what happens when you're a kid and don't have life experiences to draw on to help you wade through the challenges?

A group based in Boca Raton has been working to be the answer.

The American Association of Caregiving Youth was founded 17 years ago. Trained staff work with the School District of Palm Beach County to identify youth caregivers. These are students classified as children between the sixth and 12th grades who care for a chronically ill, injured, elderly or disabled family member.

Kids like Jacob Gutierrez. His mother has multiple sclerosis. His father works long hours as a delivery driver to provide for the family. His grandmother, who also lives with them, has a series of health issues.

"I make sure she has her morning medicine and her night medicine. I help her out of bed. I make her food. Just make sure she is alright, check-in every hour or two," Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez does all of this while juggling school, homework, and extracurricular activities if there is time.

The AACY helps provide youth caregivers with schooling support so their education doesn't fall by the wayside. Founder and president Connie Siskowski said nearly 98% of students in the program get their high school diploma while working a job they didn't sign up for.

"That's why we have to get policies because essentially this group is reverse age discriminated against," Siskowski said.

Siskowski and her team have been appealing to lawmakers to provide youth caregivers with the same compensation and benefits that adult caregivers receive. In the meantime, they continue to do home visits and offer medical help to families on a case-by-case basis. They also offer kids respite through fun activities.

"First they meet kids in their own school who are just like them and through those activities they meet kids at other schools, and so the world grows for them," Siskowski said.

The AACY says this is the breakdown of known youth caregivers:

  • 539 youth caregivers in Palm Beach County (this number doesn't account for students in private schools or home school)
  • 290,000+ youth caregivers statewide.

Jacob's mom said her family is fortunate to have found this program. She said her son's mentor does all the things she wishes she could.
"He takes him to dinner. He takes him for corn dogs, shopping. He's just there so he can be a kid. Things that I can't physically do," Jennifer Gutierrez said.

Jacob also said his mentor has made a world of difference. But no matter what, he said he'll be there to take care of his family because that's what families do.