Empathy and compassion have always been what St. Cloud resident and children’s author Wendy Muhlhauser has been about. After receiving a degree in theater at the University of North Dakota, Muhlhauser wanted to use it for good. She launched Jelly Beans Creative Learning, an organization that developed emotional competence by using drama and play-as-learning tools for educational purposes. These activities would facilitate a development of a child, including their social and emotional growth. These tools can serve a much bigger purpose than education for our youth, Wendy believes.
“I strongly believe that if our youth were given a chance to develop these skills, it would be less likely that they would engage in violent and self-destructive behavior,” she says.
The Jelly Beans learning program eventually expanded to eight cities concurrently, and was featured by many regional media outlets.
In 2007, an opportunity to go to Tanzania with the Rotary Club of Edina came up, to which she gladly accepted. Her father was actively involved in Rotary when she was an adolescent exposing her to the strength of humanitarianism at a young age. During the trip to Tanzania, Muhlhauser worked with the local Barabaig tribe on a clean water project. After the trip, Muhlhauser wanted to share her findings of the beauty of the tribe’s culture in an educational way to also inform about the scarcity of basic needs for the majority of the world’s population.
After teaching about the tribe in schools for four years, she decided that she wanted to create a children’s book with a unique, fictional protagonist to spark creativity in youth. She dissolved the creative learning program and founded SissyMarySue LLC in 2011, to further provide lessons of empathy to youth. She worked for three and a half years on her first book, “Jelly Beans the Cheetah and Hope”, which revolves around the unlikely pairing of a little girl and a captured cheetah with jelly-bean shaped spots who discover how much they share in common when they embark on an adventure in friendship. The book attempts to teach empathy and compassion in an illustrated way. Muhlhauser created the book with the tribe she had worked closely with in mind, and wanted to emulate the tribe’s behaviors into the book to teach of their diverse culture. She worked with the tribe’s behaviors and specifics, including how they lived, and what they wore to depict them accurately.
“I gained a personal connection to the tribe,” she said. “I didn’t want them to get characterized. I wanted to be true to the tribe and accurate.”
However, getting to that point required a great deal of perseverance. During Muhlhauser’s pursuit of a career in the theater industry, she was struck by a car as a pedestrian in New York City in 1992 and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Since then, she has endured four concussions, which have resulted in numerous side effects and seizures.
“It took me many years to get to the point where I could write again,” she said. “I made myself a quiet environment. I didn’t watch television for 5 years and often had a completely silent home to help heal my brain.”
During the four year writing process, Muhlhauser suffered two severe concussions that required an 8-week recovery both times.
“In a way, I am a living example of the character and the story,” she said. “I found human connection and strength from reaching out and showing empathy and kindness.”
In an attempt to preserve the value of the tribe, Muhlhauser decided to become a self-published author. She sought out Beaver’s Pond Press, a publisher for indie authors based out of Edina. Instead of paying an artist to illustrate the book for her, she decided to contact the Perpich Center for Arts Education. There, she got in contact with two students who illustrated the book. Later, a student from Brooklyn Center High School, worked with Muhlhauser to polish and create a unique aesthetic for the book.
“Jacob would create these pages via Skype and it was almost as if I was over his shoulder,” said Muhlhauser. “We never had any communication issues because we were right there talking to each other.”
The road wasn’t easy, however. Beaver’s Pond initially rejected “Jelly Beans the Cheetah and Hope”. That was just more inspiration for her. She hopes her perseverance can inspire children to not give up in the face of rejection.
“A message to the young children that aspire to be something is keep trying even if you fail,” she said.
Under her pen name and business, SissyMarySue, Muhlhauser hopes to continue spreading the value of empathy. The development will include a second children’s book continuing the Jelly Beans and the Cheetah series, and more products to further reinforce emotional competence and critical thinking.
Some notable organizations have endorsed Muhlhauser’s first book, including the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and most recently, H2O for Life. These organizations serve as endorsers and help publicize the book and support her mission. Muhlhauser also takes great joy in supporting their missions, as well.
The book’s success has been highlighted by five star reviews, numerous book signings, tours, and book talks in schools. Her book sells both nationally and internationally. She reads the book to numerous students and has them engage and learn the power of empathy and how it can affect the classroom and their community. The book is now on it’s third print run and has a five star rating on every retailer that carries it.
“Classroom management is less of an issue when we empower our youth with emotional competence, when we empower them with empathy,” she said.
Now, with the second book fully under development, Muhlhauser continues to defy the odds. She’s pursuing her master’s degree at the University of St. Mary’s in Human Development. The completion of her second book serves as her thesis, and that has been all the more motivating.
Muhlhauser is always looking for students that want to help spread the message of empathy for an internship, where they’ll help her balance her heavy workload. Some of her previous interns have even received credit for their work. You can read her website at sissymarysue.com, or on any of her social media platforms under the name SissyMarySue, to get more information.
With all the injustice that plagues our world today, we lose sight of the simple things we can do to show empathy. Muhlhauser hopes that each child that reads her book, and every child, will be exposed to the power of empathy at a young age. And that, she hopes, will spread compassion and shared humanity and that we are the human family.
If you’re interested in reading Muhlhauser’s first book, there is a copy available for checkout at the Miller Center on campus.