Sue Crolick—She Lost Her Voice and Found Her Way

Sue Crolick

It is an honor to call Sue Crolick a friend. Sue gave up an established career in advertising and design to start Creatives for Causes, a nonprofit charity benefiting at-risk kids. I wrote this article almost fifteen years ago but Sue and her charity—and its cornerstone program, Art Buddies—are still going strong. I spoke to her yesterday just as she was going out the door for the huge Art Buddies celebratory final event of the year.

The following article covers the origins of Sue’s charity. As soon as she has a chance to catch her breath, she’ll update me on what’s new and what’s in store for 2010 and beyond!


If not for a paralyzed vocal cord, Sue Crolick might still be an award-winning art director and designer instead of bringing joy to children’s lives as founder and president of Creatives for Causes, a nonprofit charity.

Crolick found herself at a crossroads in 1990 when she felt her passion for the advertising business slipping away. “I knew I had to make a living because I was single and had a daughter ready for college,” she explains, “but all I knew was what I did not want to do.”

Crolick was yearning for a big change. On New Year’s Eve day in 1991, she got it. Her doctor found a tumor in her throat and told her she had cancer. The tumor turned out to be benign but, during the surgery, the nerve to one of her vocal cords was accidentally severed. When she awoke, her voice was gone. Perhaps for good.

After five months of feeling scared and depressed, Crolick began to regain her speaking voice, but at a considerable price; her damaged vocal cord had become stuck and was blocking half her airway. Five months later, after getting no satisfaction from numerous Minnesota doctors, Crolick flew to Cleveland to be examined by one of the country’s top otolaryngologists, who pinpointed the problem and matter-of-factly told her, “Well, you have a choice. You can either talk well or breathe well.”

“My life just seemed like one long nightmare,” says Crolick. “After being consumed by my health problems for almost a year, I was really feeling the need to get outside myself and focus my energy on something else. And then I remembered the old adage, ‘The best way to forget your own problems is to help somebody who’s a lot worse off than you.’”

Inspired, Crolick decided to throw herself into a community outreach project. At the conference of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), which is held in northern Minnesota every October, she asked for volunteers to help the Aliveness Project, a center for families living with HIV/AIDS.

“Every year on Hannukah and Christmas Eve,” she explains, “the Aliveness Project delivers hundreds of grocery boxes filled with food, blankets and toys to families with AIDS and they were looking for people to decorate the boxes. I had helped them out the year before and I figured we could do in one day what it took them a month to do.”

To Crolick’s delight, nearly seventy-five AIGA members signed up and the event was a huge success. “I loved it!” she says. “I saw the power of giving our gift, the power we creative people have to share our talent with people who really need us. And, of course, I also loved it because it was distracting me from my illness and keeping me from sitting around feeling sorry for myself.”

To keep the momentum going, Crolick organized an AIGA outreach committee and put together an event for St. Joseph’s Home for Children, a Minneapolis shelter for kids who have been neglected or abused. Each child was paired with an “Art Buddy” for the day who helped them create a vision of their future self by creating a life-size self-portrait.

The success of the St. Joseph’s event further buoyed Crolick’s spirits, especially when Nordstrom’s and then Target hired her to stage “Art Buddy” events in a handful of cities across the country.

“I just loved doing public service work,” she says. “Every day when I got up, that was what I wanted to do. I was talking about it in September of 1993 to my sister, who’s a corporate lawyer. I was saying how much I loved doing it but, of course, I could never make a living at it. She just looked at me and said, ‘Well, of course you can. Just open a nonprofit and get some funding.’ I was stunned. I had never considered that possibility.”

Crolick boldly decided to risk everything to chase after her dream. After six months of planning, she shut down her one-woman firm in downtown Minneapolis and set up a home office. In order to attract more funding, she jumped through enough legal hoops to set up Creatives for Causes as a 501(c)(3), a nonprofit charity dedicated to sharing the power of creativity with people in need, especially children, by encouraging creative professionals to volunteer their time and talents.

Crolick, who had worked at a number of Twin Cities ad agencies before opening her own business, Sue Crolick Advertising and Design, in 1981, has no regrets about leaving corporate life. “I do miss the people, though,” she acknowledges. “I miss having that built-in ‘work family’ who supports you, jokes with you, asks you how your weekend was.”

Unfortunately, adds Crolick, she’s also seen that work family become dysfunctional. “What I don’t miss,” she says, “are the Machiavellian moves and the competition and all the junk that goes with big corporate life. What I traded for not having all those people around to support me is the freedom to create this charity, which I’ve been able to make happen because no one else is in control of my life.”

Her new career may be in response to a higher calling but Crolick admits that she’s still taken aback when friends tell her that what she’s doing is ‘so saintly.’ “How could I be a saint?” she laughs. “I was in advertising for thirty years!”

Sue Crolick happily monitors an Art Buddies session. As part of the program, students write in journals and share what they've learned with their classmates. This year, the kids learned about world rulers and leaders.


Here is a feature on Sue Crolick and Art Buddies by Neal St. Anthony in the May 27, 2009 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


The Art Buddies project helps bring out the whimsy in kids and adults. The project helps grade school kids understand the connection between doing well in school and in life.

Sue Crolick was one of the first female art directors in the Twin Cities advertising trade four decades ago and was the successful owner of her own firm when I met her 25 years ago.

And she’s still on the leading edge.

Crolick checked out of the ad business 15 years ago to take a big pay cut and start an invaluable enterprise that has enriched hundreds of inner-city families and creative professionals — her “Art Buddies” mentoring program. It concluded the school year last week with a joyous, colorful “Kids Rule” parade through the Whittier School and park complex in south Minneapolis.

“The helmet was kind of challenging,” said Asad, also known as “King of Robots,” a Whittier third-grader who made his own costume with mentor Chris Bonhoff, a photographer. “I read about hats. And Chris taught me how to make stuff. I want to work on this over the summer so I’ll be ready for next year.”

Once a week, for two to three hours, nearly 40 volunteer professionals and 40 kids from Whittier work together on projects, discuss the importance of school and how it can lead to good things and otherwise create a little magic in one of the more creative mentoring programs you’ll see.

“Pink is my favor color,” said Aminata, a soft-spoken fourth-grader, known in costume as “Queen of Pink.”

Tivoli Madsen, Aminata’s mentor and an accessories designer at Target, can’t get over these children, most of whom hail from working-poor families and are disproportionately kids of color and immigrants.

“It’s amazing how inventive these kids are,” Madsen said. “They have no preconceived notions. They try this flower here or this button there. And they get to be who they want to be.”

This also ties directly to education, development, self-esteem and a relationship with a caring adult outside the home. The kids write weekly in their Art Buddy journals, share their experience with classmates and, this year, learned about some of the rulers and leaders of the world as part of the multiweek Kids Rule project.

Crolick and Stephanie Vagle, the Art Buddies program manager since 1997 and an educator by profession, have put together a crackerjack program at the intersection of talented professionals and needy kids on a shoestring budget of about $100,000 a year.

“We have a waiting list in the school for this program,” said Paulina Jacobsson, a bilingual educator at Whittier and liaison to Art Buddies. “The kids in this program have less absenteeism, some of them do better in school and parents come to see this. It happens every year. This is really a chance for some of them to do something different for themselves.”

Crolick, who won a slew of local and national ad industry awards over her career, will never crack the list of high-buck nonprofit executives that adorns our business section every December. But the trim, long-term cancer survivor seems to have more fun and gets younger every year.

Crolick started “Creatives for Causes,” the official nonprofit parent of the Art Buddies program, in 1994. She had made some money and won industry acclaim but she wanted more for the soul. During a 1991-to-1994 stint, she was the public service director of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Minnesota, and founded its events to help people with AIDS and children who were abused or abandoned. Her interest in helping children started in the 1960s, when she volunteered as a Head Start aide and Big Sister. Crolick, also a mother, always found time to mentor a needy girl.

I can’t quite explain the magic between Art Buddies and reading and math.

But I know the dad of a boy named Octavius. And his boy has become a pretty good speller and reader. After getting traction through Art Buddies, it seems Octavius had a newfound pride and focus that spilled into his classwork.

For 11 years, Carmichael Lynch has donated a free office, website design and volunteers to Art Buddies, as well as cash. Communication Arts, a trade magazine, is the lead funder.

“We’d be nowhere without the support we receive from ad agencies, production companies, photographers, design firms and individuals in our field,” said Crolick, who has graduated about 1,500 Art Buddies.

As usual, Crolick, who still hauls art supplies out of the boiler room before class and puts them away three hours later, leaves herself out of the credits.

“I felt happy, excited and nervous during the parade,” said Ana Silva, “Queen of Sweets,” who works with Leslie McDougall, a graphic designer and owner of Stir Creative. “My parents said this costume was really creative.”

They are right.

“I’ve enjoyed getting down and dirty and pushing my creativity in a whimsical way,” said McDougall. “Ana was led by her dreams. I liked sharing my creativity.”

Click here to view all my posts about dealing courageously with cancer.


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2 Responses to “Sue Crolick—She Lost Her Voice and Found Her Way”

  1. ArrVee Says:

    that Art Buddies program is a great idea! Each one of us really needs to start with our self-vision from a young age, and that is such an inspired and inspiring idea to have a grown-up form it with you. One of the key messages that we should latch on to from a young age is that we hold the keys to our destiny and we individually have power to make a difference. I say this because I would have appreciated this opportunity in my younger years.

    Sue Crolick is a winner, and an inspiration to many.

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Agreed! Thanks for weighing in, ArrVee!

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