By Aaron Allen
The Seattle Medium

The Caregivers is a unique series focused on the challenges and triumphs of caregiving. These stories have been created through a strategic partnership between AARP and Word In Black.

Seattle’s Rainier Beach community has come to know Bessie Gratton. Gratton, who has a deep-seeded love for the next generation, has not only been a strong presence in the community, but she has helped make a difference in the lives of young people for decades.

By being involved in youth athletics, social work, and even finances, when she volunteered to help low-income families with their taxes, Gratton has played a role in nurturing children — and helping more families navigate systems than she can remember.

“It is difficult to count the amount of people I have had the pleasure of helping, whether through the football program or my other volunteer work,” Gratton said. “Intimately, though, where I was personally involved in the life of a young person, I would say 20 [children] I watched, nurtured and help them grow.”

Gratton, who raised five children, and a total of 15 grand- and great-grandchildren, has played a significant role in the life of countless youth in Seattle — she’s not done yet.

After retiring from Boeing in 2009, Gratton started volunteering for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a non-profit that advocates for children who are in foster care. In her role as a court-appointed advocate, it was her job to make sure that the foster children and the foster families had all that they needed, and ensure the child’s transition went smoothly, offering the child the best chance for success. For Gratton, it was a perfect match; she always opened her heart in an effort to help kids.

“My life philosophy is to help young kids,” Gratton said. “To give them the foundation and the tools they will need to be successful in this life and not to feel sorry for themselves. Not to let outside influences — whether its other kids, friends, family members, or anyone — hold them back. Because ultimately, they are responsible for themselves, because grandmas and parents will not be around forever, so they must learn how to be responsible for themselves.”

According to Gratton, time is the most important thing you can offer a child. The time you spend with a young person can give them a lasting impression that can change the way they see and approach things, and impact their plight in life.

“It was important for me as a grandparent and a parent to do what I could to help [children]” Gratton said. “And one of the things I did was to be available to spend the time with them.

“You learn as you get older that the time is just as important as the money you spend on them, the food, the clothing,” Gratton said. “They need that time with you because they always remember that.”

As the number of Black foster children being placed with white families increased, Gratton saw a special need to make sure that children of color remained connected to their communities. She wants them to maintain a level of self-awareness and pride about who they are and where they come from.

“In some cases, the children were Black and the foster families were white,” she said. “And one of the responsibilities of the foster parent was to take that child into the community so that child could connect to their culture, along with making sure children’s needs were met — whether those needs were dental, medical, tutoring, etc.” 

After observing the situation, Gratton would write a report to the court and tell the judge exactly what the child needed in order succeed.

According to friends and family, Gratton has volunteered for everything from neighborhood watch groups to being president of a youth football team, even though at the time, she admittedly knew nearly nothing about football. She has always been there to fill a void, raise money and to support the needs of the community.

“I don’t know where she gets the energy,” said Joann Francis, Gratton’s younger sister. “She’s always doing some work in the community.

“I really admire her,” continued Francis. “I admire her because she has been, of course, so very family-oriented, but she is also very focused on community and improving the community and helping people in the community.”

When you look at Gratton’s resume, you will find that she worked as a seamstress producing seat upholstery for airplanes made by Boeing. It was during this time that she also became a diversity contractor advocate, where she helped establish relationships between Boeing and Black-owned service providers and historical Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to make sure that Black-owned businesses and up-and-coming talent had a fair opportunity to work for the largest jobs provider in the region. 

However, despite all of the success that she had in creating professional pathways for others, her biggest contribution to society is making sure that children in her community, even those that she never met, had the opportunity to experience life and all that it had to offer. 

Regina Redmond, the mother of one of Gratton’s grandchildren, has taken the lessons she has learned from Gratton over the years and applied them to her own life. 

“She is very loving, very loyal,” says Redmond. “I lived with her for awhile and she was very supportive of me during my college career. She’s a very hard worker and she taught me a lot about work ethics, not through say lectures, but by example.

“I learned a lot about everything from work ethic to finance,” added Redmond. “She created an atmosphere for me and my daughter to be successful. Just watching her and seeing her hard work was something that I was able to learn from and mimic, and her granddaughter was influenced as well.”

Thinking of and giving to others more than yourself is a way of life for Bessie Gratton, and those around her believe the community as a whole is better because of the love and effort Gratton shows and shares with her fellow neighbors.

“My world revolves around the idea that I like to help people who need help,” says Gratton. “I love helping people who cannot help themselves.”