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Grandma Knows Best

[whitespace] Grandma Sue Wilson
George Sakkestad

Stand and Deliver: Whether it's groceries, toys or loving wisdom, fast-paced matriarch Grandma Sue Wilson delivers the goods to families in need.

It is impossible to predict what surprises the holidays have in store. But with Grandma Sue Wilson in town, the tradition of giving will never change.

By Mary Spicuzza

NOBODY KNOWS for sure what he or she will get when heading home for the holidays. Not just whether dad has kicked down the cash for an iMac computer, or if Aunt Marjorie will make her lime Jell-O ambrosia with the floating tangerine slices--but what more significant surprises will puncture that packed holiday schedule.

When I went home for Christmas three years ago, I never expected to walk into the living room after going out dancing to find my mom curled up on the floor crying. Nor did I anticipate rushing her to the hospital in the middle of the night, or holding her in my arms as the doctor told me that she was having a heart attack.

In the blurred weeks that followed, the family did the best we could to make my mom rest. But she had elderly friends she insisted on taking to church, and grocery shopping to do for a house-bound cousin, and she argued with me until I agreed to take her to deliver money to a single mother who lived in the neighborhood. The woman had bought Christmas presents for her kids, knowing she didn't have enough left over to cover her January rent.

It's pretty common to believe your mother is a saint, especially among Italians. But when my mom collapsed while reading bedtime stories to my niece, and died a few weeks after New Year's Day, I thought I would never meet another person who gave of herself so completely.

A few months later, I started writing a story for Metro Santa Cruz about the Beach and South of Laurel Plan, focusing on how the residents of Beach Flats felt about the proposed neighborhood redevelopment. Nearly every resident interviewed asked, "You've talked to Grandma Sue, right?"

Sue Wilson, known to most as "Grandma Sue," or just "Grandma," has helped raise three generations of families in Santa Cruz, especially in the Beach Flats community, where she has lived since 1971. Between delivering groceries, medicine, school supplies and toys to local families and talking to the constant stream of visitors at her Third Street house, Grandma Sue is a difficult woman to catch up with. But within minutes of watching Grandma work, I can see that she makes Santa Claus look like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Most fairy tale do-gooders only bring treats once a year, but for Grandma Sue giving is her life's work every day of the week.

Grandma Sue George Sakkestad

To Grandma's House: The very grass-roots Grandma Sue soars to new heights as she settles into the new Frederick Street office of Grandma Sue's Community Project.

When I Am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Pumas

GRANDMA SUE is taking giant strides this month as she moves her very grass-roots organization out of her home and into a warehouse space on Frederick Street. Last week, she began setting up the new home base for Grandma Sue's Community Project, which will allow her to expand her 30-year commitment to providing assistance to families in need. She recently incorporated and set up a board of directors, allowing her to receive a $10,000 boost from the City of Santa Cruz to help cover rent on her new office space.

"Normally if a person isn't incorporated and they ask council members for money, we tell them to go away," long-time Councilmember Mike Rotkin says. "But she does such good work that we gave her some requirements to meet. For a long time she never even came to the city for money."

Rotkin adds, "But I've sent her checks for years. She's just such a generous and hard-working person."

Within hours of arriving at the Frederick Street spot, Grandma Sue had decorated the doors with her trademark logo--a simple black-and-white drawing of a large sun rising over rolling hills. Barrios Unidos, the anti-violence organization that used the space for its T-shirt-making operation, hadn't even finished moving its silk-screening equipment. But Grandma Sue and Anna, a client and one of Grandma's "helpers," had already stocked several folding tables with supplies. Grandma guides us around the front room, from the sign-in sheets to the various tables for canned vegetables, baking goods, special dietary needs and baby supplies.

She vows that she and her community project volunteers still won't require IDs or make families in need prove they live in Santa Cruz.

"Some of my clients are homeless and don't have IDs. I only need to know who comes in here for statistics," Grandma declares. "They can put that their name is Minnie Mouse, I don't care."

When the office opens this week, each family that makes an appointment--Grandma knows that walk-ins lead to way too much foot traffic--will be able to pick 15 items. She believes that households know best what they need and that families should have control over what they eat.

"Did I tell you about the pumpkin?" Grandma asks, referring to a story she had told me about a family that got canned pumpkin for Thanksgiving, without the condensed milk or flour for pie crust. "A lot of times they get stuff but don't have anything to use it with."

As she excitedly describes her new system, Grandma Sue is scurrying around carrying cans of refried beans and soups, as well as boxes of cherry Pop Tarts and Nutter Butters.

Her 30-year-old assistant, Anna, does her best to keep up with the feisty project director.

"But she's got more energy than I do," Anna sighs, leaning against a chair.

Never mind all that "When I am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple" crap. Grandma Sue, who won't say exactly how many years young she is--"Let's just say I'm over 60"--opts instead for sensible slacks and black and tan Puma sneakers, perfect for her fast-paced life.

Grandma Sue Wilson George Sakkestad

Grandma on Wheels

GRANDMA SUE WILSON probably won't slow down anytime soon. But she is hopeful that her new location will mean fewer deliveries and more families coming to see her. Grandma Sue proudly reports plans to ease back into a 50-hour work week.

"I do about 25 to 30 deliveries a day," Grandma Sue says. "It's not as hard as it sounds, but it's not as easy as it should be."

While hugging an overflowing bag of groceries on the way to an East Side trailer, Grandma describes how some bus routes are easier to navigate than others. She has to figure in not only bus changes but hills--climbing uphill lugging multiple bags of groceries is tough on her arthritis.

But Grandma insists that there are side benefits to becoming acquainted with mass transit. "The other day, Anna asked me for the time. See, we don't have a clock in the new office yet. But I heard the bus go by and knew it must be about one o'clock," she says happily.

As we arrive at the trailer park off Commercial Way, residents Karen Fifer and Chris Golden, along with home-caregiver Olga Baeza, lead homebound client Renee Young out to the porch to welcome Grandma. Grandma catches up on the latest news as she hands a bagful of groceries to Baeza. Next, she reaches into a sweatshirt pocket and produces gift certificates for Safeway holiday turkeys.

They invite us in for Kool-Aid and coffee, but busy Grandma has her new office to arrange. She turns to leave, but not before passing out her business cards and telling Golden, who stayed home from work to take care of his sick wife and kids, to call her at home if he needs children's cough syrup.

Grandma's personal touch and commitment to each of her clients may be the reason that a typical day in the life of Grandma Sue sounds like most people's work weeks.

"What time are you waking up these days, Grandma?" I ask.

"Well, I'm not doing as many deliveries now," she says. "So not till four."

WHEN I FIRST met Grandma Sue Wilson in 1996, we couldn't talk for more than five minutes without somebody cruising into the living room of her Third Street home. Just after a father stopped by to pick up a bag of groceries for his family, three teenagers arrived, one teetering in stylish but immobilizing chunk-heeled shoes. Like many kids living in Beach Flats, they say that Grandma Sue helped raise not only them, but their mothers as well.

"She's my Grandma," former Beach Flats resident Maria Morales says. "She's everybody's Grandma."

Grandma didn't have the right shoes but promised to find some. And as she led them outside, she took the opportunity to encourage the youngest girl to go back to high school.

"She did go back. Well, she got her GED," Grandma Sue reports. "Now she lives in San Diego with her sister and is going to college."

Before leaving, they point me over to the candy basket near Grandma Sue's perpetually open side door.

"She's like an ambassador down there," says Jill Bates, a Parks and Recreation employee who also sits on Grandma Sue's board of directors. "Whatever she does really comes from the heart. She works to help people in a way that maintains dignity in their lives."

Bates says that she's seen people stop by for groceries and leave with not only food but information about employment, social services, registering to vote and self-sufficiency. "She's in contact with people all the time, often children or people who are falling through the cracks," Bates adds. "And the kids love her."

Grandma Sue clearly has a soft spot for children. She has raised 14 children of her own, seven biological kids and seven adopted.

She says, "But I've got all kinds of kids."

A Legacy of Giving

GRANDMA SUE HOPES that her new spot will be just as personal, but a little less crowded. She believes it will allow her to change with the times.

"We used to have a lot of fun in Beach Flats in the old days. I never locked my door, and people would come in to use the bathroom or make emergency calls," Grandma Sue says. "I'd always keep the 'fridge stocked with food for all the kids. Meanwhile I'd be scraping by."

Grandma has no intention of becoming a desk-hugging bureaucrat but says that she's looking forward to the help. Over the holidays, her project typically provides more than 1,000 households with food and gifts. She says she's had to look to new funding sources, since her old methods aren't as profitable as they once were.

"Recycling used to be where the money was," Grandma Sue reminisces. "But these days everybody is doing it. You just don't get as much money as you used to."

Anna, who has known Grandma Sue since she was 13 years old, says Grandma was the first avid recycling-advocate she ever met.

"In the middle of the night, I'd hear somebody rustling through the garbage and think, 'Oh, there's Sue," she says.

Grandma Sue's busy schedule and long hours may be the reason that many community activists say they've always admired her from afar but rarely worked with her directly. Some say she's stepped on some toes because she doesn't like waiting for red tape to be lifted, but she's clearly made a mark on the Santa Cruz community, especially in Beach Flats.

No one can predict whether estranged siblings will come to fisticuffs during the big holiday dinner, or if the world will come to an end as the clock strikes midnight. But as long as Grandma Sue Wilson is in town there are some constants in the ever-changing world.

"Many of us in careers get caught up in getting organized and being professional," Bates says. "But Grandma has taught me the true meaning of faith. She hangs on a hope and a prayer."

Even in her new spot and with reduced hours, Grandma Sue has no plans to change her mission. And whether she is providing back-to-school supplies,
organizing Chiropractic for Kids Toy Drive, or passing out canned food or toilet paper, Grandma gives of herself.

Grandma Sue laughs off the suggestion that she and her volunteers are angels.

"Naw," she says with a smile, "But we're leaving a legacy."

Grandma Sue's Chiropractic Toy Drive for Kids continues through Dec. 24. Donations can be dropped off at her new office, at 718 Frederick St., as well as any Bay Federal Credit Union locations or the office of chiropractor Danette L Sutton, 4340 Scotts Valley Dr., Scotts Valley. Call 423.2567 or 458-0927 for more information or to schedule an appointment. Donations can be mailed to Grandma Sue's Community Project, P. O. Box 8262, Santa Cruz, 95061.

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From the December 22-29, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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