“When you lose a child, the worst that can happen to you has already happened,” says Forster local Donna Rankin.
“So really, I’m not afraid of anything.”
Twelve years ago, Donna’s youngest daughter Shannon, 11, was swimming with her friend at a new holiday apartment complex just a few hundred metres from home.
Shannon was an excellent swimmer but when she duck-dived in the pool spa, she never surfaced.
Donna didn’t cook for a year after losing Shannon. But every day a meal would be left at her family’s door.
The Forster community’s generous spirit helped her to turn her grief around, and now Donna has become a life force in the coastal town, 300 kilometres north of Sydney.
Those who know her say she has magical powers, fearlessly embracing others who are struggling, using her skill with a paint brush to spread the healing power of art.
A preventable death
Shannon’s death was shocking and preventable. She’d been pinned to the floor of the spa, held down by the suction of a faulty drain outlet which, the inquest heard, was partly blocked by cement slurry. An emergency stop switch was nowhere in sight.
Picture frames of Shannon, “a fun loving girl who loved to swim”, are displayed in the family home. (ABC News: Geoff Kemp)
The NSW deputy coroner made recommendations, including a tightening of safety compliance procedures and a ban on active main filter drains in the bottom of spas.
“It obviously didn’t help me with my loss and sadness, but I’m so glad that another family doesn’t have to go through what we have gone through,” Donna says.
The day the Rankins lost Shannon was the day they turned their back on their real estate careers and sold their business.
Donna found solace in painting, a childhood talent she had supressed after failing art in HSC.
An oil portrait of Shannon Rankin basking in the sun, by her mother Donna. (Supplied: Donna Rankin)
“I thought, what do I have in my life that will help me carry on? The only thing I could think of was my art, so I decided to start again.”
Turns out her school teacher was wrong. Donna has since been shortlisted multiple times in prestigious art awards, including the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize and the Portia Geach Memorial Prize.
Her painting of her first Mother’s Day after losing Shannon, titled Let it Be, was hung in the Blake Prize, which encourages conversation about spirituality through art.
Let It Be, Donna’s painting of her first Mother’s Day after losing Shannon. (Supplied: Donna Rankin)
Settling unsettled minds
“Art was my saviour after Shannon’s death,” says Donna. “It brought me joy and it brought me back to life.”
That’s how Donna’s charity, Heart to Heart, was born.
Her friend, social worker Kylie Honor, had been working with young people who were struggling and “in need of nurturing”.
Kylie saw the potential for Donna to devise a school-based art program to help them in the same way that painting had helped her.
Donna gives her time to hold art classes at Great Lakes College in Forster and Tuncurry for young women showing signs of disengagement.
Donna gives her time to hold art classes at Great Lakes College in Forster and Tuncurry. (ABC News: Glenn Leahy)
They meet for several hours each week to learn how to recreate a famous painting.
“The young people are immersed in a beautiful experience,” says Donna. “As they are painting we see that their mind is settling and they forget about the really difficult things that are happening in their life.
“It’s mindfulness in action.”
Adult mentors and professional support workers are also present, including mental health experts and police youth liaison officers; unlikely friendships are formed and unexpected support is received.
Discussion, journaling, meditation and music are encouraged throughout the eight-week program.
Donna found solace in painting, a childhood talent she had supressed after failing art in HSC. (ABC News: Glenn Leahy)
Senior Constable Karen Hosking, the youth case manager at Taree PCYC, says she has changed her attitude to policing because of Donna’s influence.
“I’ve never seen teenage girls respond to an adult woman in her 50s the way they respond to Donna,” she says.
“She has shown me that love and acceptance of young people, nurturing and promoting their feelings of self-worth and self-confidence, inspiring them to be who they want to be, not necessarily who we want them to be, is more powerful than any other youth crime prevention I’ve been involved with.”
PCYC youth worker Senior Constable Karen Hosking, takes part in H2H classes. (ABC News: Glenn Leahy)
Art ‘transformed everything’
Psychology student Tanayah Tuse, 22, understands Donna’s “magical powers” after being admitted to hospital several years ago.
“I was in a really dark place. I had never met Donna and somehow she heard that I was unwell. She sent the most beautiful, heartfelt letter and an art package, and offered me art lessons for when I came home from hospital,” says Tanayah.
“She made a huge positive impact on my healing and growth through sharing her story and inviting me into her studio.
“It flipped my perspective. That connection with her and with art transformed everything.”
Tanayah Tuse says Donna “flipped her perspective” and helped her to recover. (ABC News: Geoff Kemp)
Tanayah is now in her final year of university and has become a mentor to the younger girls involved with H2H.
“If these girls are feeling braver and more confident and happier within themselves, that’s going to have this butterfly effect for the whole community,” she says.
Art changing lives
A survey of Heart 2 Heart participants found a majority reported:
- Greater ability to concentrate
- Greater self-confidence and happiness
- Improved relationships with friends and family
- Expanding network of supportive figures
- Continued practice of mindfulness and creative engagement
Source: Macquarie University Professional and Community Engagement Program study by Monica Cusak
Growing the program
Kylie Honor, the social worker who encouraged Donna to start H2H, says her empathy and fearlessness is the vital ingredient for success.
“She’s so strong now,” says Kylie.
“Donna has so many connections that it confounds you and she’s so brazen at times. She’ll go up and talk to strangers, so she can make things happen like magic.”
For the last few years, Donna has been building a Heart to Heart “how to” manual.
“It has always been my vision for artists in other towns across Australia to be able to run this program,” she says.
A will to ‘give back’
Creativity runs in the Rankin family and Donna’s drive to give back is shared by her husband David, daughter Holly and son Reuben.
Reuben, 19, is a gifted pianist and singer songwriter Holly, aka Jack River, is a rising indie pop star.
When she’s not touring or releasing albums, Holly, 23, is the driving force behind Forster’s Grow Your Own festival, celebrating home-grown culture, food and music.
“After my sister passed away, our community reached out to us in such a massive way, so we have this will to want to reach back out to them,” Holly says.
Shannon would have been turning 23 in July.
“Through losing Shannon I have been taken on a journey to embrace other peoples’ suffering to be able to make a difference in the world,” Donna says.
Watch the ABC Women’s Work series every Sunday on Weekend Breakfast at 8:45 or catch up on Iview. Join the discussion on the ABC Women’s Work Facebook group.