Several months before she passed away Mia Shand took out a Mandala kit she had received as a gift, carefully traced the pattern and colored it.
The third grader was no stranger to drawing and art but generally stuck to subjects like Pokémon. But on this winter day in 2009 she lived up to her curious nature and had pulled out a gift from the Begley family.
“When it was done, I thought it was the prettiest thing she had done,” said her mother Penny Phillips. “That was unusually beautiful for her.”
Now a larger version of that image, created by Collinsville artist and teacher Kate McAllister, is on display at . The painting contains some added descriptors of Mia, who died on Sept. 20, 2009, after fighting an inoperable, malignant brain tumor for nine months. She was nine.
“Mia was a big part of her school,” said principal Andrew Robbin. “It was great having Mia here. We felt it was important to make sure her memory lived on.”
The effort began earlier this year when Dawn Gibbons, vice president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Cherry Brook, visited McAllister at her River City Art Center studio and asked if she’d be willing to recreate the artwork.
McAllister also wanted a feel for the little girl and toured the school and watched tribute videos her family had posted on YouTube.
She worked hard to reproduce the 4-inch by 4-inch original on a 4-foot by 4-foot canvas and to keep her students quiet about the project. The words were added around the circle and the outer background darkened.
“It’s pretty much her own work with my background,” McAllister said.
She started the painting in February and finished it for earth week in April, fitting since Mia loved nature. The school surprised the family with the piece.
“It was very emotional,” Phillips said. “This is an image I’m very aware of and to see it up on the wall — so big and beautiful.”
Mia herself was a beautiful and curious child, Phillips said.
In July of 2000 she and husband John Shand went to an orphanage in Kazakhstan and adopted Mia when she was 6 months old.
“She was a perfectly beautiful little Asian girl,” Phillips said. “She was the happiest and healthy kid.”
Principal Andy Robbin said Mia was indeed very curious.
“She wanted to know how things worked and how they clicked,” he said. “It takes a while to get Mia, but once you do it’s crystal clear.”
In January of 2009, just two weeks before she turned 9, the family found out Mia was sick.
In the ensuing months, family and school officials did their best to keep life as normal as possible. Phillips said retired teacher Pam Beach was a huge help in tutoring Mia, especially during time of heavy treatment, for what was supposed to be a couple hours each day but often turned into more.
Beach grew close to Mia as did many others during that time.
“I am deeply grateful that I was part of her life and she was part of mine for the last eight months of her life,” Beach said. “I will always cherish the special bond we had and think of her with warm, fond memories as well as heartbreaking sadness. “
So many other neighbors, friends and strangers helped during that time, Phillips said.
Phillips and her husband John Shand knew Mia had the ability to bring people together.
“He just knew her journey was going to impact a lot of people and make good things happen,” Phillips said.
The painting is just the latest way the town has showed its support, Phillips said.
In October 2009, many in the community came together to release 500 balloons in Mia’s honor. Families and classmates wrote moving poems for her memorial service that same month. At Roaring Brook Nature Center, there’s the Mia’s Garden project to provide a peaceful tribute to the girl. Phillips said there are numerous other examples.
Mia’s sister Ella, now 10, now also has a younger sister at home, Joy Shand, who the family adopted just last year from China.
She already knows a lot about Mia and is yet another person Phillips believes Mia brought into their lives.
“I also feel very strongly we found Joy through Mia,” Phillips said.
Phillips also recently met McAllister for the first time.
The Cherry Brook PTO commissioned the painting, a process they had been in the works for a couple years but never quite came together.
McAllister was honored to do it, even altering the work enough for the tribute. As a teacher, she will never touch a student’s work but this project was special. McAllister toured the school and watched YouTube videos of Mia before starting the project.
She saw a funny, curious free spirit, not totally unlike the artist.
“That was the inspiration for it all,” McAllister said.
Phillips said Mia loved her school and friends and remembers what she said on the last day of school that year.
“She told me I’m really going to miss these guys mommy,” Phillips said. “I think she knew something.”
Now the painting, on the wall outside of the school’s gymnasium serves as a reminder to keep learning and cherish life and the connections it brings.
“It was one of the things that was special,” Robbin said. “The painting continues with the path she started.”