When Donna Rankin lost her 11-year-old daughter in a tragic drowning accident, she fell into the depth of despair before she picked up a paintbrush and rediscovered a love or art. Now the school-based art therapy program she devised is helping at-risk teens turn their lives around.
Donna Rankin had it all. A thriving business she ran with her husband David at Forster on the NSW mid-north coast and three beautiful children. Then one day in 2006, her world came crashing down.
Donna's youngest daughter Shannon had gone to a newly constructed holiday apartment block with a friend and was frolicking in the outdoor spa when she duck-dived under the water and never resurfaced.
Pressure from a faulty filter drain caused her to become trapped and there was no emergency switch to turn off the spa. Despite the frantic efforts of bystanders to free her, Shannon drowned.
A coronial inquest four years later found a blockage in the main filter drain, caused by cement slurry residue during construction, had caused Shannon to become trapped under water. The coroner found the death was 'preventable' and made a number of recommendations, including a ban on active main filter drains in the bottom of spas, to prevent such a tragedy occurring again.
Donna spent more than a year after Shannon's death so consumed by grief that she was unable to work and she and her husband sold their successful real estate business.
Then one day, Donna picked up a paintbrush for the first time in years.
"It was literally the only thing I could think of to do with myself as I just wasn't functioning," Donna recalls.
"The first painting I did was a portrait of a woman who was afraid and it was me trying to show the world how I was feeling at the time."
Donna continued to paint for the next few years, "taking the emotions from my heart and putting them on a canvas" before her friend and social worker Kylie Honor, suggested Donna could use art to help at-risk young people who were "struggling with life".
"Painting allowed me to carry my grief in a way that I would never have expected. It was like a type of meditation as it brought me joy and brought me back to life," Donna says.
"Art was a saviour to me after Shannon's death."
And just as importantly, she knew it could save others. Donna devised Heart to Heart, a school-based art therapy program for at-risk youth which uses art to improve mindfulness, self-esteem and other skills necessary for social and emotional well-being.
The first program was launched eight years ago and is referral based, with Donna going to schools where there is the highest need.
Students take part in a structured program of eight, weekly art classes where they are guided by a master artist to create their own "masterpieces".
A facilitator and youth mental health worker are also present and a morning tea break allows time for a "heart-to heart", allowing friendships to form.
Donna says painting is "mindfulness in action".
"When they are immersed in the process of painting they are not stuck in the past or thinking about the future. They are in the moment and that gives their brain a chance to be still and calm," says Donna.
"As they are painting, they recognise that their mind is settling and they are forgetting about the really difficult things that are happening in their lives.
"They are truly understanding mindfulness, being in the present moment. We are then able to build on this understanding, giving them practical mindfulness exercises to use at home.
"At the end of the eight weeks, family, friends and teachers are invited to an exhibition at the school to celebrate their hard work."
More than 350 students in years 7 to 10 have taken part in the program.
Earlier this year, Donna was named one of only 10 Real Heroes as part of a Laing+Simmons statewide campaign, receiving a $5000 donation.
It was a much-needed boost for Donna, who funds the program from grants and donations.
After starting in the Forster-Tuncurry region, Donna this year extended the program to schools in the Upper Hunter region.
It is her dream to train an army of artists and facilitators to take the program nationally, including primary schools for the first time, and she recently produced a training manual to enable this to happen.
After going through her own loss and discovering the healing powers of art, it is only natural that Donna wanted to help others. She chose to work with children because "the pure energy of young people is beautiful to be around".
She also saw the impact of grief on her own surviving children, and how they found solace in the arts. Her daughter Holly is a well-known Indie singer/ songwriter who goes by the name Jack River, while her son Reuben is an accomplished pianist.
Holly filled dozens of journals after her sister's death, which she now uses as inspiration for her song writing. Donna encourages young people who are struggling with anything to write down their thoughts and embrace journaling as form of creativity and mindfulness.
"Music, art, knitting, any type of creativity is good for the soul," she says.
Donna says she can feel Shannon's beautiful spirit "all around us" and believes her daughter's death was the catalyst for her helping others who are in pain.
"Through losing Shannon, I have been taken on a journey to embrace other people who are suffering and that has now enabled me to make a difference in the world," says Donna.
"To see young lives transformed as they progress through the Heart to Heart program brings me so much joy."
For more information about the Heart to Heart program visit: http://hearttoheartaustralia.com