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Lennie Dellard-Brown, center, talks during an interview about the custody of her grandson Anthony Cook, 7, left, as his cousin Jalen, 12, looks on at the Kinship Center of the West Contra Costa Youth Service Bureau in Richmond, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. WCCYSB is a safe and congenial environment for kids and their caregivers. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

RICHMOND -- Enjoying a rare moment of leisure, Lennie Dillard-Brown looked fondly at her grandson Anthony Cook, the child she has raised since the age of 18 months, as the 7-year-old shot baskets last week in the yard of the Family Enhancement Collaborative, more popularly known as "the Kinship center."

The 62-year-old retired registered nurse brings Anthony and his cousins Jalen, 12, and Chalyn, 6, to Kinship on 26th Street several days a week for adult-supervised activities including a homework club. Afterward, there often is time for play, in the yard or around the table in the meeting room, brightened by a mural with Mexican folk art figures.

Dillard-Brown has legal custody of Anthony after what she described as a year's battle in family court.

"He witnessed domestic violence at a young age," Dillard-Brown said. "He's in therapy now -- play therapy."

Then she added, "He has really only me to fight for him. I'm his voice."

In that way, Dillard-Brown is typical of the caregivers, mostly grandmothers with a sprinkling of aunts, family friends and the occasional male relative, who participate in Kinship Support Services, a program of the West Contra Costa Youth Service Bureau. The nonprofit agency is participating in the annual Share the Spirit campaign to raise money for charitable causes.

There are 69 families, including 119 children, who participate in activities at Kinship. The caregivers provide the children with the love, guidance and stability that their lives might otherwise lack.

"Often, the parents are deceased, or incarcerated, or just not healthy enough," said Kinship program coordinator Glenda Roberts, citing mental illness, substance abuse or homelessness as examples. A kin caretaker helps protect the child from drifting away into rootlessness and alienation, two factors that can lead to a lack of caring for yourself of your community, and perhaps violence, she said.

Anthony Cook, 7, smiles while his grandmother Lennie Dellard-Brown talks about his custody at the Kinship Center of the West Contra Costa Youth Service
Anthony Cook, 7, smiles while his grandmother Lennie Dellard-Brown talks about his custody at the Kinship Center of the West Contra Costa Youth Service Bureau in Richmond, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 13, 2013. WCCYSB is a safe and congenial environment for kids and their caregivers. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

"Otherwise the kids would be in foster care or group homes," Roberts said. "I'm not saying that's terrible, but you want to be with your family first. With your mom and dad, or your grandparents. Your siblings. You want to keep the family together -- that's why a lot of these grandparents step up. They want to keep this family connection. Otherwise, there's no sense of attachment to anybody."

In collaboration with the West Contra Costa Unified School District and faith-based and nonprofit organizations, the Youth Services Bureau provides referrals to services for children including mental health, case management, academic help and, for older kids, job counseling. Founded in 1985 in response to a wave of violence that befell Richmond, especially among its young men, the agency embraces a holistic approach, emphasizing early intervention in a variety of areas such as education, mental health and crime prevention.

"They bring together all of the members of the family and they all contribute to taking care of the younger folks," said West Contra Costa school board member Randy Enos, who said the agency has had good results with many district students. "That's their goal."

Kinship also has programs for older kids, such as Girl Scouts, a teen girls group and an independent living skills program for boys. The agency provides occasional respite to the caregivers, with the staff doing an activity with the kids or taking them on field trips for a few hours. In addition to caring for Anthony full time, Dillard-Brown cares for Jalen and Chalyn much of the time. As a missionary with Abundant Grace Ministry, Dillard-Brown teaches a monthly women's Bible class at the West County Jail and she volunteers once a month comforting patients at Vintage Estates nursing and convalescent home in Richmond.

A two-time breast cancer survivor, Dillard-Brown also takes care of her once-estranged husband, who is battling colon cancer and undergoing chemotherapy.

"I'm just human," she said, "and doing what God wants me to do."

Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760 or tlochner@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.

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The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
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Readers with questions, and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which administers the fund, at 925-472-5760.