Leona Sprinkle: “We knew he was coming, we just didn’t know he was coming home with us that day.”
By Hilary Reeves
When Leona Sprinkle’s grandson was born in July, the anticipated celebratory title of “Grandma” took a swift backseat to a job description more critical than she could have imagined.
“The first official title I was given over him was ‘Safety Officer,’” she said. “The investigator on the case told me pretty early on that it was obvious there was nothing I was going to do to put him in danger.”
Sprinkle was at the hospital when her daughter gave birth. Originally scheduled to work, she took the day off from her job as a dispatcher for Carlile Transportation Systems. She grew up watching her grandfather run his own trucking company, and joining Carlile Transportation Systems in 2011 seemed a natural fit.
“I come from a truck-driving family,” said Sprinkle, a dispatcher who directs loads arriving by sea.
Two days after the baby was born, she was at work awaiting a call from her daughter to let her know the pair had left the hospital. Her daughter had worked hard to overcome a drug addiction prior to becoming pregnant, and Sprinkle, her mother, and her daughter’s father splurged on three month’s rent, furniture, diapers, clothing, and everything else her daughter needed to ensure she got back on her feet and the baby got off to a successful start in life.
But when the call finally came, it was accompanied by an odd request.
“My daughter called and said there were people (at the hospital) who needed to talk to me before she and the baby could leave,” Sprinkle said. “I left on my lunch break and went up to the hospital, where I was told the baby, and my daughter, had tested positive for meth.”
Representatives from the State of Alaska told Sprinkle at the hospital that unless she was willing to take the baby, he was to immediately become a ward of the state.
“We knew he was coming,” she said, “we just didn’t know he was coming home with us that day. I thought I’d be gone from work for an hour. But no one was going to take my grandbaby from me.”
After a quick phone call to work to let her supervisor know what was going on and that she wouldn’t be back that day, Sprinkle left the hospital with a state investigator trailing behind. The investigator followed her to the loft apartment she shared with her fiancé, Mark.
“The investigator did a home visit,” she said. “We had three levels of stairs and a big loft space. We didn’t have very much space for all the baby things we had bought for him, and it wasn’t going to be safe once he started to crawl around. I knew we were going to have to move.”
The investigator approved the baby’s new home. Soon after, Sprinkle received devastating news.
“We found out that during the days my daughter was in the hospital, her boyfriend was at the new apartment we paid in advance for having (meth) parties. Everything we bought for the baby – the crib, the bedding, the clothes, the diapers – was contaminated and could no longer be used. Meth is absorbed through the pores. If you touch anything that’s contaminated, you’re at risk of its effects. We spent more money than we probably should have the first time around, and then we were left with nothing.”
The generosity of strangers
In the weeks that followed, the courts officially deemed Sprinkle the baby’s foster parent.
“After the first home visit, I called my immediate supervisor and he contacted the terminal manager, and Human Resources worked to get all my shifts covered.”
Sprinkle said news of her situation quickly spread. Kit Hoyt, a friend of Sprinkle who works at the Carlile terminal in Tacoma, Washington, began organizing a clothing drive, putting the word out to terminals across Alaska.
“I ended up with 10 jumbo cases of diapers, wipes – boxes and boxes showing up in Anchorage from all the Carlile terminals: Fairbanks, Tacoma, Prudhoe, Kodiak, Kenai, Edmonton, and Houston. Gently used sleepers, and swaddles and blankets. Clothes in sizes up to 12 Months. I was really surprised. I’ve helped out the families of people we’ve lost over the years, and I knew that we had a lot of great people, but to me, my situation was different. It was just really great. I cried every time a box was delivered. The thoughtfulness and generosity of people I’d never met, was incredibly overwhelming. My appreciation and gratitude for them and all they’ve done is endless.”
Sprinkle was putting her grandson to bed in a Pack ‘N Play, and he was getting too big.
“I was talking to a couple of the girls at work about my plan to buy this four-in-one crib I saw on sale at Fred Meyer’s,” she said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but one of those girls was on the Helping Hands committee at Carlile, and the committee actually purchased it for me. (Retired Vice President of Human Resources) Todd Alan was coming up to Anchorage for his retirement party, and he ended up being the one to go and pick it up. I think the best thing about it was watching Mark try to put it together.”
In October, Sprinkle, Mark, and their three-month-old grandson moved into a little ranch house with a nicely fenced yard in the same neighborhood as the couple’s former loft.
“We had to get out of that apartment,” she said. “There are 28 steps from the front door to the living area. It wasn’t kid—friendly at all.”
Sprinkle went back to work a week after her grandson was born, relying on her childhood friend who lived nearby to babysit while she works double and sometimes night shifts to cover for those on vacation. Unfortunately, her babysitter was due to return to work herself. After a stressful few weeks contemplating how she was going to be able to cover the gap between paying her friend what she could afford to potentially having to pay more than $1,000 per month, Sprinkle found a new home daycare.
“I found a wonderful woman that (the baby) really likes,” she said. “And I’m going to be able to afford it.”
Getting baby back on track
Sprinkle said she’s learned a lot in the past seven months, including how closely the State watches babies born with drugs or alcohol in their systems.
“There were home visits every month, of course,” she said. “But then the State had all of these different programs. So many babies are born addicted to drugs or alcohol. They really watch them. My grandson was part of all of these different things. At least once a week there was someone from some organization at our house. They wanted to know when he first turned over, at what age his eyes could follow my finger. We’ve taken part in every test to make sure he’s on track, and he’s where he’s supposed to be.”
Sprinkle said that during the first few months she spent with the baby, she concentrated on making sure the toxicity he was born with had no lasting effect. Methamphetamine, she explained, can enter the body through contact with contaminated surfaces again and again.
“Everything he touched was washed at least once a day,” she said. “We had to try three different formulas to figure out what wouldn’t mess with his tummy. But his growth level is exactly where it’s supposed to be.”
The next challenge, she said, will be assessing his learning capabilities once he enters preschool.
“He’s doing great,” she said. “He’s amazing. When you go to get him up out of bed, the first thing he does is smile at you.”
Inevitably, Sprinkle’s relationships changed as a result of having a new little man in her life. Some were strengthened. Others were damaged – perhaps irreparably.
“At my daughter’s first court appearance, the judge asked her what she thought she needed to do to be reunited with her son,” Sprinkle said. “She said all the right things, but her actions just sort of dwindled off. Every once in a while I’ll get a call, but it’s all for show. I may have given birth to her, but that’s not the daughter I raised. Coming from a family of strong women, you learn that rule number one is to take care of the babies.”
Sprinkle’s excited for her older son, who is getting married this year.
“He’s on track for everything,” she said. “Everything good in life. I don’t want anything that’s going on with his sister, or any choices that I make to saddle him with extra responsibilities.”
As for her fiancé, Mark, having a new baby in the house took some getting used to.
“I told him at the beginning of all this that this is where I live and this baby’s coming to live with me,” she explained. “He had a little fit. It was all out of fear. It took him awhile, but every once in a while he’d be walking by the baby and he’d stop to look at him with a bit of wonder. Mark’s coming around now, he’s got a new little buddy. We’re Papa and Grandma. (The baby’s) changing so much. He looks different every day.”
Sprinkle is scheduled to attend a hearing in April that will begin the process of making her her grandson’s permanent legal guardian. She said she decided to share her story to let others who have lost children to drugs or alcohol know that they’re not alone.
“I know people out there are going through the same things,” she said, “kids are running around crazy. Sometimes you have to let go of your own, use a little tough love, to take care of the new ones. All I know is nobody’s going to hurt my grandbaby. This boy is going to grow up content, happy and healthy, come hell or high water.”