Recollection for June: Celebrating Retired SAF Executive Director Susan Heartwell

Last night, my son legitimately asked me which came first, the chicken or the egg.  I gave what has become my standard answer for those moments when the kids ask me something profound: “Um, I’m not sure.  Let’s ask Grandpa!”

But his question got me thinking about the genesis and history of things; their foundation.  I started to reflect on the foundation of the Student Advancement Foundation.  Early SAF champions include some well-known names in the Grand Rapids community—truly extraordinary people, many of whom continue to be strong supporters of the SAF and the students of GRPS to this day.  Among these, there is one who particularly personifies the heart and soul of the Student Advancement Foundation: longtime executive director, now retired, Susan Heartwell.

This May, Aquinas College recognized Susan, and her husband George, for their longtime commitment to Grand Rapids with the Norbert J Hruby Emeritus Award.  Dr. Hruby was the beloved second president of Aquinas College, until his retirement in 1986, who transformed Aquinas and this community through his vision for lifelong educational opportunities for all.  Aquinas gives the award to those, “whose leadership, generosity, and spirit of service have been sustained over the course of many years, and whose dedication to the welfare of all citizens serves as a light to guide those who follow.”

I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition than Susan.  Like Dr. Hruby, Susan believes in the transformative power of education and that the right to access educational opportunities is fundamental to a healthy, thriving community.

Susan took on the role of executive director of the Student Advancement Foundation in 2003.  During her ten year tenure, she worked tirelessly to remove the barriers that stand in the way of success for our city’s kids.  Like Dr. Hruby transformed Aquinas, Susan led the transformation of the SAF, focusing our vision and mission to better respond to the changing, and growing needs within Grand Rapids Public Schools.  Susan led major campaigns at the SAF, including revitalizing every GRPS school library, replenishing the district’s inventory of band and orchestra instruments, providing graphing calculators for math and science students, ensuring students visit local arts organizations through grade-level enrichment trips, and launching after-school sports opportunities for elementary and middle grades.

For Susan, the smaller, quieter connections with our students and schools were equally important.  Like being a guest reader during “March is Reading Month” or standing outside on the first fall back-to-school morning to greet and welcome students as they entered the building.

I was proud to attend the Aquinas Hruby Award dinner last month to honor Susan, my mentor and friend.  I could not have predicted when Susan hired me to join the SAF in 2006, how distinctly my own foundation would be shaped, working together to support GRPS students.  To this day, Susan’s passion and commitment are core to my foundation, and to the SAF’s.

Not long before Susan’s retirement, we received this thank you note from an elementary student whose school had recently purchased new art supplies with grant funds from the SAF.

“Dear Mrs. Heartwell, 

Thank you for the money.  I think you are a compassionate lady to give us the money.  I think you are a magnificent lady because all the things you did for this school.  Coit is only going to become better because of the Huge donation you gave us. 

Thank you!”

There simply is no award that anyone could bestow upon Susan that would mean more to her than this child’s heartfelt sentiments.  Susan’ years of leadership at the SAF helped so many and continue to be the foundation of our Foundation—helping children succeed at school and in life.

We’d bet Susan feels that’s her best prize ever.

By Alyssa Morillo Scheidt, Director of Communications & Grants

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