The Art of Healing: How One Former Foster Youth’s Ability to Forgive Helped Her Move On
Winner of Foster Alumni and Educator Award
Kimberly Rhyan had been estranged from her mother for years. She had tried to forgive the woman who gave up parental rights to stay with a man who abused Rhyan, causing her to enter foster care at 14 years old.
Rhyan, now 37-years-old, remembers her mother saying she didn’t want to have to choose between her daughter and her boyfriend.
“She said ‘I’m going to pick him every time,’” Rhyan said. “It was a powerful thing that stuck with me my whole life.”
An attempt at reconciliation failed in 2001 after Rhyan learned her mother had lied about breaking things off with the man. But in 2011, after the man had died, Rhyan visited her mother again. This time she brought to her mother a grandson, Rhyan’s young son Carter, who is now four years old. Rhyan slowly began to spend time with her mother, making sure her son was safe in the situation, she said. In May 2013, Rhyan’s mother was diagnosed with brain cancer.
“I took a month off work and went everyday with her when she was going through radiation,” Rhyan said. “It really helped me to heal. I was so grateful for that time with her. Sometimes I was really angry. I wanted to ask all the questions because she didn’t have a lot of time, and I realized I had to let it go. And when I did, it was a weight off my shoulders.”
Although difficult for Rhyan, she wanted to teach her son about compassion and forgiveness, she said. And time and experience had led Rhyan, director of student engagement and leadership at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, to change the way Rhyan had seen her mother, before she passed away.
“I think it was just I had always judged her for the decision she had made with her life and said I wouldn’t be like her,” Rhyan said. “Then I was in a relationship that I’m not proud of and then I thought some of these experiences she got herself in — she could have experienced trauma.”
Rhyan visited her mother, who Rhyan remembered as a talented artist, and they created together. Rhyan, whose art encompasses many forms including writing and acrylic painting, considers art as a tool to communicate. Her paintings were on exhibit in February 2015 at Columbus State Community College Library. Rhyan is grateful that her mother’s gift was passed down to her and that she was able to help her mother gain peace at the end of her life.
“So much of my struggle has been that I didn't want to be anything like her, and finally, as a mother, myself, I could identify and realized that I could not change important decisions in my past, but my love for my son is a love that drives me forward, to grow and become.”
That same compassion drives Rhyan in her role helping students in her job. She tends to work with students going through emergencies, typically regarding housing or providing support through other tough situations. She leads several projects related to foster youth.
Rhyan earned her bachelor’s degree in fine arts, with a minor in youth ministry from Mount Vernon Nazarene University, in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 2000. Rhyan went on to earn her master’s degree in creative art therapy at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York in 2006. She remembers what it was like to go through her schooling, wanting to “start fresh” and not have to ask for help.
“The goal of my institution is to get students to complete (school) and succeed,” Rhyan, who is a member of Ohio Reach youth advisory board for current and former foster youth, said. “I’m always trying to figure out how we can better that process.”
Her work encompasses empowering students to take part in projects that could help their community, such as working on volunteer projects. She helps students network and take part in creativity workshops. Rhyan’s job often involves ensuring college students know what opportunities exist and helping them take advantage of them.
Although much of her work with students is community service oriented, Rhyan tells her students before they can truly help other people, they must take care of themselves, however that might look, from journaling to yoga, and that it’s important to have a support network. Service, wellness and leadership are “excellent pathways for students to develop holistically,” she said.
“My goal is to help facilitate experiences with students’ career goals in mind, so they have the skills and experiences to be better prepared for their first job.”
Crystal Browning has known Rhyan since Rhyan was in college and was her first supervisor when she worked in the cafeteria, Rhyan said. Rhyan babysat Browning’s daughter and Browning taught her how to drive, along with helping Rhyan through some challenges she faced.
“I went to Christian college,” Rhyan said. “People knowing I have a strong faith and then I made choices I wasn’t proud of, then being a single mother, I felt like there was some judgment even if it might have been in my head.”
Browning nominated Rhyan for the Foster Alumni and Educator Successful Survivor Award because she believes Rhyan deserves recognition for what she’s overcome.
“She inspired me then as a young woman striving to become more than the dysfunctional and abusive in her life,” Browning said, noting that 10 years later, Rhyan inspires her even more for everything she’s accomplished.
Rhyan had other people encourage her, including a loving foster family (who Rhyan still considers as family) and a woman in the admissions department during her undergraduate studies. Other people who have believed in Rhyan, such as an art teacher, Rhyan considers “the hands and feet of Christ” and that they helped her believe in herself.
“That’s why I love my job. If someone missed that along the way, if someone didn’t have that conversation with them, much like Crystal Browning had with me, maybe I can have that conversation with them and I can help them along the way.”
That’s why Rhyan thinks she’s in the place she is in now, with her family and her career.
“What being a survivor is really about is not just the ability to overcome it but to learn a lesson and move forward and pay it forward with my son and college students.”