by Thea White
“Grandma’s hands clapped in church on Sunday morning
Grandma’s hands played a tambourine so well
Grandma’s hands used to issue out a warning
She’d say, ‘Billy don’t you run so fast
Might fall on a piece of glass
Might be snakes there in that grass,’
— Bill Withers
In the face of overwhelming uncertainty, Women United’s Pepper Pot Kinship Support Group is proving that Bill Withers was on to something when he spoke of the healing properties of a grandmother’s hands in his 1971 song “Grandma’s Hands.”
Alesia Cannady is once again doing what she can to serve a community she’s been a part of for more than 20 years — and this time she’s not alone. To help protect low-income community members from COVID-19, Cannady and a team of dedicated grandmothers, who are members of the Pepper Pot Kinship Support Group, and their grandchildren have tapped into the art of sewing to create face masks for underserved families in the West Hill/Skyway community.
Cannady is known by many for putting on the annual Love Train Play Street community party at her “Angel of Hope Engagement Center” in Skyway. That event, the Pepper Pot Kinship Support Group, and now the Grandma’s Hands Face Mask Project, are all under the umbrella of Cannady’s organization: Women United. She started the nonprofit to help fill gaps in state services for kinship families — or families in which the primary caregivers of children are not their parents (and who in many cases are their grandparents). The nonprofit specifically addresses the needs of women caregivers and the children they care for. In the wake of COVID-19, Cannady has dedicated most of her time to supporting those who are struggling with isolation.
To educate community members on the effects of COVID-19 and the importance of wearing face masks, Grandma’s Hands made over 130 masks to distribute free to workers at the Safeway store in Renton. There they spoke with community members on the ways face masks are helping to keep families safe and together.
“Our purpose is to pretty much bring back family values, structures — as well as accountability and involvement. Our hope is to bridge the gap between the kinship providers and the children that they love and care for,” says Cannady.
Like many other nonprofits, Women United has had to adapt to living in a COVID-19 world. Following the stay-at-home order, the Pepper Pot Kinship Support Group meetings were postponed, leaving many grandmothers in the program with limited contact among one another, outside of occasional phone calls.
According to Cannady, this scale of isolation has also ushered in a spirit of heaviness as many have begun to deal with emotions like worry, pain, and fear on their own instead of leaning on community. Cannady hopes to provide support for those who are battling loneliness and remind them who they have in their corner. That includes supporting members of her Pepper Pot Kinship Support Group as they navigate through their own depression, using the healing properties of sewing.
For Americans over 65, loneliness can lead to various pre-existing health issues becoming worse. According to a study done by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the stress of isolation can cause an already vulnerable population to become even more receptive to high blood pressure, sleep problems, memory impairment and weakened immune systems. This, combined with the fact that Americans over 65 are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, is enough stress to make anyone feel trapped. Which is why Cannady believes it is important now, more than ever, for there to be a space for kinship caregivers to leave their worries behind.
“Women United stands to unite with and for one another in the times of crisis,” says Cannaday. “I come from a place of being left alone and not having nobody to lift me up, not having no one to encourage me, not having no one to be able to go and cry to … I think that’s how I got here. I didn’t know back then or even on the journey that this is where I would be, but I’m satisfied with it,” says Cannady.
Special thanks to Sadie P., Gloria J., Nina S., Wendy F., Patricia M., Patricia H., Dosher L., Yvonne Licorice, and Latasia C.L., with help and support from future change makers Aleiyah, Sidney, and Zeezee, who also helped to create and distribute masks.
If you would like to place an order for a mask, offer support, or donate to Women United’s Grandma’s Hands Face Mask Project, please visit the “contact us” page on womenunitedseattle.org (to inquire about masks or to offer non-monetary support) or click the “donate” button at the bottom of their home page.
Thea White is an educator, community advocate and aspiring truth-teller who calls Seattle home. Few things are more wonderful to her than reading her favorite comics while listening to Jonelle Monae.
Featured image: Aleiyah and Alesia Cannady sew masks for Skyway residents. (Photo: Devin Chicras)