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Mountain Projects helps local family during increasingly common struggle

The Milsaps children, shown here, have moved in with their grandparents amid a tough family situation. Donated photo The Milsaps children, shown here, have moved in with their grandparents amid a tough family situation. Donated photo

Donna Milsaps, of Jackson County, has encountered struggles that are hard to comprehend for some, but all too familiar for many in the mountains. 

After each of her adult children developed substance abuse issues, Donna, 58, and her second husband Ronnie took full custody of six grandchildren, ranging in age from 4 to 13.

The Milsaps didn’t feel like they had a choice. Aside from the normal wide-ranging needs of young children, it’s no mystery that kids who experience the trauma of addicted parents suffer long-term effects, and it’s true that they’re three times more likely to develop addictions of their own later in life.

But even in Jackson County, where 55% of survey respondents say their lives are negatively influenced by substance abuse, these issues can come as a shock when they hit close to home.

“We didn’t expect our lives to be like this,” said Donna. “Our family went to church and our kids were well cared for in our home. I don’t know what we could’ve done differently to make things better. Now we’re just concentrating on these grandchildren, and we’re doing everything we can.”

Recent statistics show that 170,000 North Carolina children under age 18 — 7% of the total under-18 population — live in grandparent-headed households. In Jackson County that number is 642, or 9%.

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2023 was difficult for the Milsaps, but they are thankful to be together.

“The children call us Mama and Daddy,” Donna said.

Donna is partially disabled and stays home with the kids while Ronnie works for the Swain Transit system, but his recent cancer diagnosis further clouded their picture. They’re behind on mortgage payments and “every bill has become a negotiation,” she said.

Fortunately, their bank has been supportive, and the family has reached out to Mountain Projects and the Jackson County Department of Social Services for help. Mountain Projects has helped with physical needs, including beds for all the kids (which brought them to tears), shoes and tires for the family car. The Healthy Opportunities Pilot program, administered by Mountain Projects, will provide food boxes and other services for the children.

“We are so appreciative,” said Donna. “We’ve never needed help and we’ve never asked for help; we tend to keep to ourselves. We just ran out of options.”

“Someone said to me ‘you can’t save the world, honey,’” she continued. “But we are focused on improving the lives of these children. They are our family, and we are doing our best to provide them with what they need to grow up strong.”

Mountain Projects raises emergency funds to support situations like the Milsaps are experiencing. As the staff works with families, its programs can help to develop long-term solutions.

If anyone would like to help the Milsaps and other families experiencing difficult circumstances and serious emergencies, they can contribute to the emergency fund. For questions, call either 828.452.1447 for the Waynesville office or 828.586.2345 for the Sylva office.

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