‘Grandma’ uses her ‘hands’ to bring awareness to mental illness

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Donna Hairston will provide sweet treats during the NAMIWalks event on May 19. The South Brunswick baker owns Grandma's Hands.PHOTO COURTESY OF DONNA HAIRSTON
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Donna Hairston will provide sweet treats during the NAMIWalks event on May 19. The South Brunswick baker owns Grandma's Hands.PHOTO COURTESY OF DONNA HAIRSTON

SOUTH BRUNSWICK – A transplant from Brooklyn, New York, Donna Hairston lived in Charlotte before moving back up to the Northeast – one week before superstorm Sandy pummeled the area.

“I wish I still had my U-Haul because I would have turned back around,” the five-year Monmouth Junction resident laughed.

New to the area, Hairston did not know much about South Brunswick, and she suffered through a week-long power outage, but New Jersey did afford her an opportunity she had no knowledge of during her southern days: a chance to be involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Hairston said she has suffered from depression her whole life, but aside from therapy, never sought outreach from an organization. She became a member of NAMI-NJ, which is headquartered in North Brunswick, but never went to the office. She decided on a whim to ask how she could volunteer with the agency.

“That was my way of getting out there and talking to people who have the illness,” she said. “It’s tough. It’s very, very tough. You have to find a reason to fight. My kids are my life and I always tell people, I probably would’ve taken a different path if it weren’t for me fighting to be around my girls.”

A natural in the kitchen, Hairston will provide 200 muffins for NAMIWalks New Jersey on May 19 in Seaside Park. Though her menu is not set, she said she will probably bring her “famous” corn muffins, possibly blueberry or pumpkin, as well as gluten free and vegan options.

“People love to eat and socialize. I hope it’s part of the attraction that brings more walkers,” she said.

She also will walk with her team, called Diva With Depression after her daily blog, since both she and her daughter battle the disorder.

“It’s hard being a mom living with depression because struggling to be a parent is normal, but it’s also hard being a mom and raising a child who struggles with depression,” she said. “You have to listen, that’s key. … Listen and talk to your children, but mostly listen.”

Though not a grandmother herself, Hairston began her baking business, Grandma’s Hands, in honor of her own grandmother, Pearl Coleman, who she used to visit in Virginia as a child.

“I was very, very, very close to my grandparents,” she said. “My grandmother was a phenomenal cook. I would stand on the stool next to her.”

Coleman never used a recipe for her pound cake or her yeast rolls.

“So, I don’t do recipes,” Hairston said. “I always have a recipe as a guideline, but it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

Hairston dabbled in event planning for a while, and then took up catering and a lunch business while living in Charlotte. She had learned to cook at age 7, helping to feed herself and her brothers while their mother worked. She said her older brother had to turn on the stove for her.

“To me, it was never a business when it started out. To me, food is part making people happy and part people getting together. The kitchen is a big place,” she said.

However, her passion brought her back to baking pies, bread, muffins, pound cakes and bundt cakes. She also makes her own extracts.

Using her kitchen as her “home office,” Hairston completes special orders, such as four sweet potato pies for her cousin for the past 15 years, or lots of treats around Christmas.

Her own favorite dessert is Pearlie’s Pound Cake because it’s “something I grew up with.

“It’s just good and it’s comforting, especially with a cup of coffee in the morning,” she said.

Some of her fan favorites have actually been accidental products. For example, when she ran out of rum for her Rockin Rum Cake, she grabbed a Mai Tai mix and created her signature Magical Mai Tai Cake, which has become a best-seller. The Sweetie Tater Pound Cake was borne out of a disdain for pumpkin. The Rush Cake was an alternative version of a typical Ooey Gooey cake, but instead used strawberry and lemon cake instead of typical yellow box cake. The O Gosh Cake was renamed Nettie’s Chocolate Dream, since her sister, the late Regina Rogers-Harnden, was nicknamed Nettie from “The Color Purple.”

“To me, cooking is love. It’s like taking care of someone,” she said.

Hairston soon realized baking also helped her take care of herself. She said it is therapeutic for her, which is why providing sweets for the NAMI walk is important to her on many levels.

She said for one, finishing the walk will be an accomplishment because she has bad knees but two, she wants to raise awareness about mental illness. She said her ultimate goal is “to be a voice” for others.

“The minority community is my niche because there is a lack of awareness and help, and there is the stigma,” she said, noting that people who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia or any other disorder are not alone, and should seek someone to speak with.

“There’s always somebody out there you can talk to. Don’t shut down. Don’t stop until you find someone,” she said.

Check in for NAMIWalks New Jersey begins at 9 a.m. May 19 at the Boardwalk at Seaside Park. The walk starts at 10 a.m. To register, join a team or donate, visit www.namiwalks.org/newjersey or call 732-940-0991.

For more information on Grandma’s Hands, email gmashands@gmail.com or visit her Facebook page. Wrapping and shipping are available.

Her logo was designed by Megil Patterson, who is on Instagram under @travelingturntables.

Hairston’s blog can be found at divawithdepression.wordpress.com.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@newspapermediagroup.com.