At ages 69 and 71, Sadie Pimpleton and Gloria Johnson are both well into retirement. But instead of relaxing, the sisters are raising their grandchildren as their own.
Johnson is caring for two grandchildren, while Pimpleton is providing a home to three, including a 6-month-old. It is challenging, they say, but Pimpleton and Johnson have always counted on each other for support.
“I guess we are like each others right hand,” Pimpleton said.
The challenges grew in 2014 after Pimpleton’s husband of 43 years passed away, leaving her in a state of depression.
“Even though I had the grandkids, I would stay in and not go anywhere,” Pimpleton said.
It was during this low point that the family met Alesia Cannady and learned about her support group for grandparents raising their grandkids. Soon the sisters were attending a regular meetup called Pepper Pot, which was run by Cannady’s nonprofit Women United Seattle, mostly out of her Skyway home.
Both Johnson and Pimpleton said that since finding Women United they have discovered a new sense of purpose that has helped them ward off depression. They said this group of grandmothers has become their extended family, offering the kind of support they wish they had found years ago and providing them with the opportunity to support others.
“We met Alesia and all these groups and it helps," Pimpleton said. "I mean there is still a lot we have to learn, but we take our time and do what we have to do. We are able to support each other and that's what we really need is support.”
Johnson, Pimpleton and the other grandmothers in Cannady’s group are among the nearly 44,000 Washington grandparents raising their grandchildren. These grandparents are considered kinship caregivers — family members other than the parent who provide care and exist outside of the state’s foster care system.
The state provides assistance to these caregivers, but it is relatively little compared with the benefits for foster parents. For example, financial aid through temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) for one child in kinship care, regardless of age, is $363 per month. In the foster care system, financial assistance for one child starts at $562 and increases as the child ages, maxing out at $1,505, depending on their specific needs.
This disparity in assistance from the state has left some kinship caregivers, like the grandmothers of Women United, looking to each other for support instead.
“We got to just do it ourselves,” Pimpleton said.
Cannady knew the disparities of the system well. When she was raising her two nieces, along with her two sons, in the early ’90s, Cannady received $542 from the state for both girls, which she said was barely enough to feed them.
“Raising my boys and two nieces was hard; $542 was not enough to feed and clothe the girls. Everything else was out of my own pocket,” she said.
But when Cannady started Women United, she wasn’t intending to support kinship caregivers. Instead it was the struggles of a family who had moved into the apartment across the street that inspired her to act.
Cannady learned that her new neighbor was running from a violent husband who had molested her daughter, one of three children she had taken with her. The family didn’t have any furniture in their apartment. Her youngest had sickle cell disease and had to be taken to the hospital often, sometimes in the middle of the night.
Cannady, even though she had just lost her job and was struggling herself, wanted to help any way that she could. She took her kids’ beds and her own personal bed over to give to her neighbor. She also set up a small TV for the family.
A friendship between the new neighbors followed, as well as a desire to do more. So, with the administrative help of her new friend, Cannady formed Women United as a nonprofit in 1994.
“Because of the crisis women have gone through and they didn’t have anyone to stand by them and not only that, but the crisis that I’ve gone through, and there was no one to stand by me,” Cannady said. “It made me want to stand by other women.”
It wasn’t until much later, when Cannady took in her 6-week-old granddaughter Aleiyah while the girl's parents struggled with a drug addiction, that she realized how difficult kinship caregiving without support can be for grandparents.
“When I got Aleiyah, that’s when I realized I would need some help with this. I couldn’t do this again like I did,” she said.
Inspired by her granddaughter, whom she calls the Angel of Hope, Cannady added the Angel of Hope Play Place & Engagement Center to her nonprofit in 2014. Through this new addition to Women United, Cannady has developed several programs to provide support and community for kinship families.
There is the twice-a-month Pepper Pot support group for grandmothers raising their grandchildren, a weekly kinship sewing class called Threads of Change and countless cookouts, socials and programs that Cannady runs mostly out of her home.
Once a year in the fall, Cannady also hosts a block party called Love Train Play Street where kinship kids can get free backpacks and haircuts before heading back to school. She relies on donations and volunteers to make it happen.
“We don’t want any kinship caregiver that ends up taking on a family member to be left alone,” Cannady said. “It is really important to the success of the child. So if it’s not your family that gathers around you, let the kinship families surround you.”
Like most of the other grandmothers, Cannady is retired and living off of her Social Security checks of $1,462 per month. She also receives $1,142 per month for Aleiyah from the state's Relative Guardianship Assistance Program (R-GAP). She says things are tight.
“Half the time my bills are a little more than I can handle and I have to kind of scramble,” Cannady said. “I mean it’s just really hard. I get by with prayers each month.”
Some of these grandmothers are also giving up their retirement to raise their grandchildren, Cannady said, trading rest and 401k savings for dance recitals and school supplies.
She said lack of finances and respite are the biggest challenges she sees facing the grandmothers in her groups.
Cannady doesn’t run Women United without help. She works closely with Catholic Community Services (CCS), which also offers support to kinship caregivers. It is through this relationship that she met Shannon Jones, a kinship navigator for CCS who has supported Women United and worked with Cannady for years.
Jones works with kinship caregivers directly when they come to CCS for support, providing information about financial assistance like utility discounts, child care, housing and support groups. She says a lot of caregivers, mostly grandparents, are hesitant when they first reach out.
“It is hard for people to reach out for help,” she said.
Jones can personally understand this feeling. Her mother took care of her daughter, Enjunay, off and on for four years while Jones was incarcerated and struggling with a drug addiction.
“To see those grandparents, I know what it’s like to be the grandparent through my mom, I know what it’s like for the child to go through what they are going through with Enjunay, and I know what it’s like to be the reason they are in the situation they are in,” Jones said.
Jones’ mother takes part in the Pepper Pot support group, even though it has been almost 20 years since she was a kinship caregiver.
“What Alesia is doing is awesome because they get to do some of the things that they didn’t get to do way back,” Jones says.
Like Jones’ mother, Wendy Fortney is no longer raising her grandchildren, but she relies on Women United to relieve stress. And like most of the other grandmothers in the group, Fortney is retired, but she picked up a part time job at Macy’s to help pay for her grandchildren’s college tuition and for family vacations. She regularly attends Pepper Pot.
“I don’t know what I would do without them,” Fortney said. “They are my family now.”
The grandmothers aren’t the only ones benefiting from Cannady’s work. The children in kinship care are directly impacted through Grandma’s Hands, another Women United program.
Grandma’s Hands consists of a group of grandmothers who meet once a week to sew pajamas for kids who are leaving foster care and being placed with a relative or in kinship care.
Jones has been the person delivering some of the pajama boxes to kids. She said one grandmother told her that she has to wash her granddaughter’s pajamas every two days because she can’t get them off of her. She loves them so much, she wants to wear them all the time.
“To give these kids something that is theirs. Kids that are just coming in to the home especially, they are already going through it, you know, ‘I’m not with my mom and I’m here.’ So to give them something that is their own,” Jones said.
For Fortney, who also takes part in Grandma’s Hands, the act of providing kids in kinship care with something that is their own recalls her own experience as a foster child. Her mother died when she was 10 years old and she was placed into a foster home when she was 12. She remembers when she was picked up for foster care, she was allowed to go only with the clothes she had on. Fortney didn’t understand why that happened and said she never wants a child to go in to a new home with nothing of their own.
“I definitely don’t want anybody to have to go in with what’s on your back,” she said. “That was bad.”
As a kinship caregiver, Fortney could provide the support to her grandkids that she never received as a foster child, but like all kinship caregivers she did not receive the same financial support from the state as foster parents.
“I don’t know why the rules have to be changed for that. It is still the child and they are still going to need the same things,” Fortney said. “I wish they would figure it out and give these kids more help. They do need it.”
Most kinship caregivers don’t even apply for cash assistance from TANF. In fact, according to a policy report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, reported by InvestigateWest, only 12 percent of kinship caregivers apply for assistance because they either don’t know about it or are reluctant because of an associated stigma.
“The things these kids go through because of the choices we parents made is so unfair, but then when grandmother steps in and takes these kids, there's love right there at the very beginning. There's security, they feel safe,” Jones said. “It might not be mom but they know they are safe.”
Back in May, Cannady planned a special surprise for her support group, which was not an unusual tactic for her. She loves surprises.
On a sunny Friday morning, grandmothers arrived at her home for what they thought was a regular Pepper Pot meeting. As they entered, Cannady placed a handmade fabric gold crown on each of their heads. She had also made a gold sign that read “Queen for a Day,” which the grandmothers took turns taking photos with.
Grandmothers gathered in the living room as they waited for everyone to arrive. They caught up with each other on their health and what was going on in the grandkids’ schools. One grandmother showed off the dress she had recently made in Threads of Change, the kinship sewing class that Cannady leads.
Once everyone had arrived, a white stretch Hummer pulled into view outside of the living room window. Jaws dropped open and eyes widened. The grandmothers made their way outside, one by one, as men in suits escorted them to their royal chariot of respite for the afternoon.
Within the first couple of minutes of the ride, bottles of sparkling juice were opened and cheese and fruit plates were passed around. Gospel music played and grandmothers took photos, laughing and singing together.
The ride lasted just shy of three hours and stopped for photo ops along the water at Alki Beach and at Kerry Park overlooking Seattle.
Cannady’s hope for the day was that grandmothers would leave feeling taken care of and relaxed.
“I wanted to treat them like the queens that they are,” she said.
Jones recalled bringing her mother to “Queen for a Day” and seeing so much joy on all of the grandmothers’ faces, especially her mother’s.
She said she appreciates what Cannady "had put forward for these grandparents to make them understand that they're appreciated."
"[It's] not just because you are caring for your grandchild, which you chose to do," she said, "but that you are somebody and we still love you, so let’s do something for you.”