At 37 years old, Joe Vinson knows a lot about life.
He knows what it takes to raise children; he has four.
He knows the importance of hard work and education; he and his wife are working to send his oldest off to college this fall. These lessons, and many more, he learned from his grandmother.
Hazel Crigler took in Vinson and his younger brother and sister when he was 5 years old.
“My grandmother was a widow at the time,” Vinson said. “She knew it would either be her or we’d end up in foster care.”
They grew up in Seattle’s Central District, where neighbors took an interest in helping the family. He attended Meany Middle School but his grandmother sent him to Roosevelt High, fearing he was getting involved with the wrong crowd that would follow him to Garfield High.
Vinson’s story isn’t unique.
I was partly raised by my grandmother, but under much different circumstances. My grandmother, Johnnie Winfrey, lived with our family in Tennessee from before I was born until I was in college. With a father running a business and a mother working full time while in nursing school and pregnant with child No. 5, our grandmother’s presence meant we were never home alone. I remember being jealous of latchkey kids who got to do what they wanted, when they wanted. Now, as a parent, I know our lives growing up wouldn’t have been possible without the safety, love and guidance of our grandmother.
Skyway grandmother Alesia Cannady has been caring for others all of her adult life.
First, she raised her own children. Then she cared for her aging parents and a sister. Next she intercepted her sister’s 7-year-old daughter and an infant who were headed to live with their partially blind grandmother because their mother was struggling with drug abuse. “What was supposed to be three months for my sister to get her life right, turned into 17 years,” said Cannady of taking in the kids.
And just as the two nieces were leaving the roost, Cannady’s son, also battling addiction and homelessness at the time, called her from the hospital where his daughter was being born, asking her to take the baby.
“At first I thought ‘no.’ I really did. I was planning on retiring and going to Las Vegas. I’d just raised my nieces and wanted to do me,” said Cannady, who retired from CenturyLink as an executive office manager. “But my answer was ‘yes.’ It’s my granddaughter.”
In some ways, Cannady’s life is not uncommon. More than 2.5 million grandparents in the U.S. were the primary caretakers of their grandchildren in 2021. Experts report that such numbers are increasing as the opioid epidemic expands.
But she is unique in that she’s created a resource for about 15 other grandmothers to turn to for support and advice and to “give them an experience.”
Women United Seattle is a nonprofit that provides grandmothers the experiences many oftentimes give up when they take on raising their grandchildren. They include sewing classes, cooking events, special dinners and outings as a group. Some grandmothers are periodically crowned “queen for the day,” complete with a limousine ride, flowers and dinner. Cannady says it’s her way of lifting them up.
“I teach them how to sew and then they graduate to Grandma’s Hands (an advanced class) where they make pajamas for kids coming from foster care to kinship care. It’s like a welcome package to them.”
There’s also a winter wonderland festival for the grandmothers and grandkids and a summer festival, all in Cannady’s backyard in Skyway.
“I look at it as me being able to be a nana to a whole lot of their kids and being a sister grandmother to other grandmothers with grandkids. I’m giving the grandmothers what I didn’t get.”
Though Cannady gives a lot, she’s thankful for the help she gets. However, she says, there’s always room for more. She’s received grants from King County and the Seattle Foundation, Champions for Change, the Safeway Foundation, shoe donations from Kicks for Kids and hands-on help from Habitat for Humanity. The grants will help her hire an assistant and she’s looking for someone to help with Women United Seattle’s social media.
Grandparents are often asked to take on this huge responsibility without any assistance, though there are resources available from the state. It’s a matter of making grandparents, many of whom are on fixed incomes, aware of what’s available.
“We need it (help) from the state and we need it from our community. Grandmothers get put to the wayside and some people feel we don’t have any value, but they do all this work.
Raising children all over again can lead to resentment for some, Cannady said. She acknowledges she missed out on a lot when her life took a detour.
“I missed out on having traveling time for myself. Doing what I want to do for myself. Open a store. Write a book. Being able to go out with my friends,” said Cannady, who also writes poetry. “I missed being me.”
Vinson, who also lives in SeaTac and is a transportation manager with the city of Seattle, says he knows he and his siblings interrupted his grandmother’s life.
“And on some bad days she’d tell us,” he said with a chuckle.
He wishes something like Women United existed 30 years ago.
“She had girlfriends she’d talk to on the phone. That was her outlet. Other than that, her focus was on us,” he said, remembering their ritual of going to McDonalds on Wednesdays for the 49-cent hamburger special.
“She kept us fed. She ironed our clothes every day. She made sure when we went to school we looked sharp. Any free time, she devoted it to us. She prevented us from being a part of a system when she didn’t have to.”
Crigler died of cancer in 2002, a year shy of seeing her grandson graduate. Looking back, as a parent, Vinson understands the sacrifice, and is active in his children’s lives.
“Maybe growing up in a two-parent household I wouldn’t know what the pain would be like” of not have a father and mother present and active. He says he tries to honor his grandmother by being a good father. “I’m just trying to repay the debt that I owe.”
Editor’s note: This column has been updated from its original version.