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Young grandma honored for going above and beyond

Published Jul. 27, 2007

He loves Dr. Seuss. He prefers chicken and shrimp, but insists on smelling the first bite and rubbing it against his upper lip.

He plays recordings of This Old Man and John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith over and over. He loves to plant flowers and play in the wood chips his grandfather uses for mulch.

Brandon Lewis is a typical 5-year-old except that he suffers from autism, cerebral palsy, sensory integration disorder and other ailments.

Victoria Lewis, 41, Brandon's grandmother and caretaker, said she relies on God to get to Brandon's medical appointments and to make ends meet. Even as she raises Brandon, Lewis is fighting her own battle with multiple sclerosis.

For her efforts, Lewis is GRAND Magazine's grandparent of the year.

This year's search, the first of its kind for the national magazine based in St. Petersburg, brought nearly 500 entries. Those entering the contest were asked to briefly describe why the grandparent they were nominating should be considered best in the nation.

Lewis said she is happy to accept the award, if only to call attention to the number of children cared for primarily by their grandparents. Forty-two percent of grandparents who live with their grandchildren have primary responsibility, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

"A lot of parents aren't stepping up to the plate, and that's what's scary," said Lewis, who lives in Gibsonton.

Shuttling Brandon between school and doctor's appointments is done even as her muscles degenerate from multiple sclerosis.

"It's amazing what the mind can do," she said.

When her daughter, Christina, got pregnant at 16, Lewis decided to raise the child. Doctors found excess spinal fluid in the brain, or hydrocephalus, while Brandon was in the womb. After an emergency C-section, Brandon weighed just 2 pounds and had several disabilities.

The second round of single motherhood didn't come easily at first.

"I had to get over myself very quickly," Lewis recalled. "I was upset with God. I said, 'I've been a good mother. Why did you do this to me?'

"God said to me, 'This isn't about you.' "

Christina has since gone to college. Her mother and son visit her periodically.

Brandon is frail and cannot dress himself. He makes friends cautiously and demands a lot from the few people he trusts.

"He requires constant care," Lewis said. "He's very determined."

She gets by on Medicaid and frugality, and says she values a visit with her parents or a walk in the woods over anything that costs money. They watch little television and don't go to movies. Life is too complicated, and too simple, for that.

The rescuing gene showed up early in her life.

"When I was a kid, I brought home stray kids, kids who had trouble with their families. My mom told me, 'You can't save everybody.'

"I said, 'Well, can we save some?' "

She has started several support groups for caregivers. One group brings grandparents raising children together. Another lets parents or other caregivers talk about raising children with disabilities.

She also volunteers as a citizen advocate in the court system for abused or neglected children.

Taking care of a child's child is not new, she said. People of all nationalities have been doing it for centuries.

Besides, Lewis said, "He thinks I'm the greatest thing since sliced popcorn. That's what gets me through the pain, and that's what gets me through whatever symptoms I might have."

Within the next few months, she and Brandon plan to visit SeaWorld. The trip and luxury accommodations are courtesy of GRAND Magazine.

"She is not a wealthy woman, but she just keeps giving," said Christine Crosby, GRAND's editor. "Our editors had no trouble selecting her."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or