Karee Upendo is a busy woman.
She is CEO of Build-a-Bow, the company founded by her now-13-year-old son Alex, which has gotten national attention. She runs the Upendo Library, her family’s publishing business, which publishes books for Black children and produces reviews of books by Black authors. She lobbies state legislators on mental health and bullying. And she’s mom to a 13-year-old, a 5-year-old and a newborn.
Which doesn’t leave a lot of time for self care.
That was on her mind one day in September when she and her kids made a trip to Madison from their home in Racine to speak with state legislators. She had seen a Facebook post from Progress Center for Black Women founder Sabrina Madison, who had just returned from CurlFest, an event in Atlanta celebrating Black beauty. Madison had some beauty and personal care product samples ready to give out to whoever stopped by.
Upendo had stopped by to drop off some donated books.
“I told Alex, ‘Go inside and get me some samples,’ (because) I’m super shy. Her helper comes out with a big bowl of samples and now I’m embarrassed because I should’ve just got out and got help but I’m super introverted and shy. So I was just like, ‘Girl, just take some.’”
She said that hesitance to pause and take some self-care is common in the lives of busy Black women.
“In that moment I was having a super bad day,” she said. “We were already running late, driving in the car for two hours, my five-year-old has motion sickness, my newborn hates to be in the car. It was just a lot. And in that moment she just gave me a bunch of samples that were hair care products, stuff for my nails, makeup, and just stuff that I don’t have time, generally, to buy myself. I don’t have time to sit at a salon for an hour to get my hair done or do my nails. I just don’t have the time. So I felt really special and it gave me a moment just to really stop and appreciate myself and just be happy in that moment.”
And in that happy moment, she knew she wanted to pass that feeling along.
“I just started thinking, how can I create something for other Black women to make them feel special and just take a reminder that they need to take care of themselves?” she said. “We do so much for other people, I need just to remind them, you’re beautiful, take a moment, take care of yourself.”
So she returned to Facebook, asking her friends what they’d want in their ideal self-care kit.
“A bunch of women were commenting like, ‘Oh I would love a satin bonnet so I could wrap my hair at night,’ or, ‘A pen and a pad of paper so I could write some mental affirmations, thoughts or poetry.’ There were a few posts like facial care products, lip care products and just a bunch of everything. Everybody was posting a bunch of stuff.”
She decided on a budget of $2,000 to create 100 such gift boxes and applied for a grant from Buffalo, NY-based Foresters Financial to finance it. She was nervous that the company wouldn’t fund a project so narrowly focussed — something specifically for Black women — but “the grant qualification said you can apply for something that speaks to your interests or your heart,” she said, so she gave it a try — and got approved for $1,900.
And then she went to Facebook one more time, to ask the people in her network to recommend Black woman-owned businesses to stock the boxes.
“There were over a hundred comments just coming in, coming in, coming in,” she said. “And then I just started sending out this draft letter saying what I was trying to create and what we were looking for, wholesale prices, but please do not underbid your product. We still want to create a stimulus for your company and we don’t want you to underbid. We don’t want you to be stressed out. That’s not the point. We want to help you hopefully get some money for the holidays and then also bring awareness to other hundred women that your company is here and what you make. So a bunch of companies just submitted their pricing for the items and then we picked the items that were within the budget so that we could supply every box with at least 10 items.”
Each box ended up with 13 items including toffee butter lip balm from Sweet on You Beauty by Leslie on Etsy; satin reversible hair bonnet from Build-A-Bonnet handmade by Lashaira Lymon; a Black Girl Journal from Transient Books on Etsy, designed by Upendo herself and bound and made by Alex Appela, a woman of color who lives in Argentina with her family (each book was made by hand, no machines); a Blacknificent coffee mug designed by Upendo and made my Salina Glass; sleep masks by Eurica; bath bombs from Life Around Two Angels; cedar sage sticks by Magik Planet; plus Korean face masks, diamond gem jeweled pen, Teas, honey dipper sticks and inspirational message bracelets.
Upendo decided to distribute the boxes through the place the idea came from.
“I just felt like The Progress Center was the perfect place, the perfect hub,” Upendo said. “She has a location where people can do pickups. She deals with a lot of groups of black women. It just made sense.”
She dubbed them with the name “Woosahbox” — incorporating the slang term for “calm down, take a breather or chill out” — and hosted a packing party where 16 volunteers spent a couple hours putting the boxes together. The next morning, Sabrina Madison and Upendo announced — again on Facebook — that the boxes were available for anyone who wanted one — for free.
Madison said the Progress Center for Black Women has over 50 boxes remaining for anyone who stops by.
Upendo said it’s important for Black women — and men, for that matter — to have personal care products made specifically for their needs.
“A lot of people don’t know that me and my son were homeless. I was a teen mom and we lost my apartment due to a fire,” Upendo says. “And so when we were bouncing shelter to shelter, a lot of times they gave you a care kit or a hygiene kit, and some of the things in the hygiene kit, for example, are a comb. Well having African American hair, our hair is super coily and tight. I can’t just use a regular fine-tooth comb. I would be bald. I just think that a lot of times people think, well you get what you get, or beggars can’t be choosers. But a lot of times I don’t think that people understand, regardless, that you’re going through a financial crisis or you’re homeless or you’re having a situation, everybody deserves to have something that’s for them regardless of financial situation.”
Upendo says the Woosahboxes aren’t going to be a new business venture for her — she has enough of those going on already — but she’s hoping it becomes a “pay it forward” situation.
“What I’m hoping is that I inspire someone else to do an act of kindness or bring joy. I just want people to think kind of outside the box and do something different to create an impact. Something that somebody else can catch on and do something else amazing. And then so on and so on and so on.”
The Progress Center for Black Women is at 5936 Seminole Centre Court, #211, in Fitchburg. Anyone can stop by between 1 and 4 pm Thursday or 10:30 am to 1:30 pm Friday to pick up a Woosahbox, until they’re gone.