OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – More than 43,000 children in Oklahoma are being raised by their grandparents. For many of those grandparents, the unexpected labor of love so late in life, takes a huge financial toll.

Because of that financial burden, an Oklahoma City woman, Leela Baker, created a non-profit organization called Nana’s Closet, solely to help grandparents raising grandchildren.

“We started out in a one-bedroom apartment with a dresser in between us,” Cathy Webb said. Cathy is raising her granddaughter, Aralyn Guy, who is now 17, but has been in her grandma’s care since the age of six.

Grandma Cathy Webb and granddaughter Aralyn Guy. Photo: Cathy Webb
Grandma Cathy Webb and granddaughter Aralyn Guy. Photo: Cathy Webb

“All of my friends call her ‘Grandma’ too,” Aralyn said.

About three years ago, Cathy and Aralyn were among the first clients to get help from Nana’s Closet – a small “shop” inside a free room at Putnam City United Methodist Church, where Leela takes in and hands out loads of donations each year.

“Christmases, just clothes, back to school – it all helps because walking into a school and not having new things is nerve racking. But, with resources like this, you get to feel like you’re included. You feel like you get to have the things that other kids have,” Aralyn said.

Cathy and Aralyn. Photo: Cathy Webb

Cathy and Aralyn want to return the blessing to Leela, nominating her for a Pay It 4Ward award from First Fidelity Bank’s Brian Perceful.

“Cathy, thank you so much for nominating Leela. What a cool story to hear about everything she’s doing through Nana’s Closet. And on behalf of First Fidelity Bank, we’d just like to give this $400 to you to give to her,” Brian said.

“We appreciate you a bunch,” Cathy replied.

Our News 4 crew surprised Leela at her shop, along with Cathy and Aralyn.

“On behalf of First Fidelity Bank and KFOR, I wanted you to have something special, because that’s what you are. $400,” Cathy said.

Leela appeared shocked. “Thank you guys so much,” she said. “I never want them [grandchildren] to feel like they’re unwanted. I read that over and over again by grandparents, saying these kids feel like they’re throwaway kids, and they’re not. They didn’t ask to be here and they deserve the best, and I want to give them just a little bit… Don’t cry, Aralyn, you’re going to make me cry,” Leela said as she reached out for a hug from Aralyn.

“Like Aralyn, she’s one of our first families and I just love her. I watched her grow up,” Leela said.

And now Leela is watching her own grandchild, Evelyn, grow up – under her own roof.

“In 2017, we were told that our daughter, who was a heroin addict, and who was living on the streets at the time, had gone into labor. Her water broke.”

Leela and her husband of 30 years, Lamont, officially adopted Evelyn, who is now 5.

Leela says, as an infant, Evelyn went through withdrawals and spent 17 days in a neonatal intensive care unit.

Evelyn as a newborn in the arms of Lamont Baker. Photo: Leela Baker

But Evelyn is thriving now, and has been named the non-profit’s expert toy tester.

“And you can make whatever song you want to,” Evelyn said, as she showed our news crew how to operate a musical toy.

Inside Nana’s Closet at Putnam City United Methodist Church. Photo: Leela Baker.

“You get seven pairs of pants, seven shirts, you get books and toys,” Leela said, as she showed us around Nana’s Closet.

Leela and Lamont run their non-profit free of charge, and often times, on their own dime. Their reward is seeing the smiles on the kids’ and grandparents’ faces.

Lamont, Leela and Evelyn Baker. Photo: Leela Baker

“Economically, 20 to 22 percent of grandparents in Oklahoma that receive their grandchildren fall below the poverty line, and a lot of people don’t realize that, because they weren’t planning to start over.” Leela said. “They decide, ‘Do I get my medicine this month? Or do I buy them the clothes, the shoes, or whatever they need.’ And so we help alleviate some of that.”

“It’s just amazing the blessings that we’ve gone through,” Cathy said. “We’re so grateful that God is leading us on this path,” Leela replied.

A path that also creates lifelong friendships.

“I love you so much,” Leela said, as she hugged Aralyn for a second time.

Donations from Nana’s Closet. Photo: Leela Baker

If you would like to help, Nana’s Closet is always in need of new or gently used clothing, books, or toys, but they are especially in need of men’s clothing and shoes for older teen boys.

If you are a grandparent and would like to apply for assistance, Nana’s Closet currently serves Oklahoma, Cleveland, Canadian, and Logan counties.

Other resources for Oklahoma grandparents raising their grandchildren can be found here.

To nominate someone unrelated to you and deserving of a Pay It 4Ward award, click here.

Pay It 4Ward is sponsored by First Fidelity Bank.