By Madison Bloomquist
Strength is a funny thing. It lies dormant, deep inside of you, and sometimes you don’t even know it’s there. You go through life as if you’re driving down the highway on cruise control, not singing along with the radio, but not necessarily hating the song enough to change it. Your mind is in other places–what to cook for dinner, when to schedule your dentist appointment, what your best friend meant in a snide comment she made last night.
Susan Robinson is sort of an expert at this.
Destruction and gratitude
A little more than a decade ago, Robinson was happily married with an elementary school-aged child. She was a stay-at-home mom and often volunteered in her daughter’s school art program, marveling at the sheer joy and unapologetic colors in kids’ paintings. She had a dream–to one day create an art program that would benefit foster kids. It weighed heavily on her, as a parent and a person, so many children didn’t have parents to tuck them in at night. Your kids didn’t know if they would get breakfast the next morning, or even if they would live in the same house through the week. She knew she was ready to give back.
Insert the head-on collision. Robinson’s husband got sick and passed away after only a year.
The family spent that year traveling across the country for treatments, a year of uncomfortable hospital beds, sleepless nights, and–still–a child to care for.
“Everything turned into surviving, getting her through her upbringing, and my ideas went on hold,” Robinson said.
That would be hard enough. Anyone who has experienced a devastating loss could tell you. Robinson, now an only parent feeling the crushing blow of grief, knew she still wanted to give her sweet daughter the best childhood she could. She remarried when her daughter was a teenager, and–get this–her second husband died of cancer just 17 months after they married.
But Robinson, the fighter she is, doesn’t want her story to be just a sad one, just as she didn’t want the rest of her life to be centered around her own grief.
“With that kind of tragedy, if you’re lucky enough, you find gifts, as corny as that sounds,” she said. Her gift was gratitude: for her family, for her friends, and, most of all, for the strength that came from her daughter.
Four years ago, she knew it was time to do what she had set out to do. Susan started Foster Art, a for-profit company that donates a large portion of its proceeds to the foster care system. The concept is pretty simple: She, along with local art teachers, host workshop events. Kids of all ages can come paint pictures. If she thinks the paintings would make good home or office decor pieces, she’ll put them online to sell, with as much of the money as possible going to the foster care system.
She’ll also use the opportunity to teach kids about what they’re doing. Not just the art–they’re free to paint whatever they want, and she’ll make sure she uses the exact titles they come up with for their artwork. Rather, she teaches them about foster care. Some are so young they don’t know what it means to be a foster child. She never lies to the kids, but makes sure the conversations are appropriate for each age group. Teenagers hear more about the problems within foster care, while 6-year-olds might be told they’re helping raise money for kids who don’t live with their parents.
“As soon as they’re able, they know what they’re doing to help kids without families,” Robinson said. “They might not remember the next day, but maybe they’ll talk about it at dinner and Mom and Dad will catch on.”
Creating a community that understands the role of art is important to Robinson. She views art, like music, as something that can connect us all. It sure works on kids.
“Getting pure ideals like kids have onto paper is like a reminder of how you should look at the world,” Robinson said. “Childrens’ art is typically about finding joy. There’s not enough art for kids anymore. When they get a paintbrush and create colors, it’s like you can hear a pin drop. They’re so focused.”
Robinson obviously wants to continue to raise money for kids in the foster care system. She likes to focus on the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, which provides legal assistance to foster children ages 10 and older; and organizations like the Dave Thomas Foundation, which focus on finding adoptive homes for foster kids and teens. Her main goal, though, is to increase awareness–starting with kids and their families. The kids spread joy and hope through their artwork (she’d like to build out the company and eventually have a whole home decor line, she says), but they also spread joy and hope by being who they are. They want to help kids in need. They want to do what they can, especially if that means painting a picture with Robinson’s workshops.
Mother Teresa said that the way to create peace is to go home and love your family. Robinson is sure doing it. Her daughter, now 23, got to have a real childhood because of her strength and selfless love. Now, countless foster kids are one step closer to having the same opportunity. She didn’t back down. She didn’t give up. She didn’t give in to the collision.
Isn’t that what hope is all about?