It took about seven days after the death of their youngest sister for Casey Robinson Hild and Michelle Robinson to realize they could not be sad anymore.
Jenna Robinson, 17, was a fiery redhead who loved thrift shopping, “Fergalicious” by Fergie and spending every waking minute she could at Island School of Performing Arts, the dance studio owned by her mother and run by her big sister, Casey. Jenna died on April 4, 2016, after a long battle with epilepsy.
Jenna’s best friends were in her dance classes at the studio, and the girls took it hard. Jenna was part of their tribe, and they were also part of the Robinson family.
Hild and her mother, Toni Robinson, did not even want to walk into work immediately after Jenna’s death. Jenna was the rock of the studio. Aside from dancing, she’d often sit in on other classes and help babysit Hild’s son while she worked.
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“While going through that grieving period, we went through it as a family and as a studio family, Hild said.
But soon after Jenna’s death, something changed inside the Robinson women. It happened when they were getting ready for the day at Toni and Paul Robinson’s home.
“A week after she died, all three of us walked out with makeup on,” Michelle Robinson said. “We hadn’t worn make up since she died.”
Toni Robinson, Michelle Robinson and Casey Hild all had the same feeling — Jenna had told them to get themselves together and stop moping around.
“We’ve got to do something,” Michelle Robinson said. “We’ve got to turn this into a positive thing.”
The color purple
One of the first things that changed at the studio after Jenna’s death was a new pop of color.
Island School’s walls are covered in hues of bright blue and lime green. Hild said they immediately added purple to design aesthetic. Purple was one of Jenna’s favorite colors as well as the color of epilepsy awareness. Purple Day, hosted on March 26 every year since 2008, is “an international grassroots effort dedicated to increasing awareness about epilepsy worldwide.”
The color has become the Robinson’s “family color” and will also be used in Michelle Robinson’s wedding in January 2019. And purple is the mainstay in the Robinsons’ plight to advocate for the arts and epilepsy awareness since Jenna’s death.
They wanted to help dancers further their education despite financial need and wanted to be the voice of epilepsy in the state, Hild said.
Jenna and Hild has always said they wanted to open a dance studio where “nobody had to pay for anything but the teachers could still get paid.”
“We always had this crazy dream that we could run a dance studio off the pure love of dance,” Hild said.
Michelle Robinson, a communications specialist who says her sisters “always put their creative eggs in one basket,” took the concept and ran with it.
“We have all these great people in our lives that want to do something to carry on Jenna’s name, and we didn’t need any more funeral flowers,” Michelle Robinson said.
The Jenna Robinson Scholarship Foundation was born to help dancers pursue the arts in college, because there are often not scholarships available for dancers.
In a little more than a year and a half, Hild has been able to award scholarships to dancers who decided to make dance their career.
One of the girls, Nyah Duckworth, was Jenna’s best friend and duo partner. She is studying at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which has one of the best dance programs in the world.
“Jenna was so proud that Nyah applied and was going there,” Hild said. Giving her the first scholarship was a “full-circle” moment for the Robinson family.
“The arts have to support each other because they’re not getting much support from anywhere else.”
The Ballerina Ball
The Robinson sisters have grown the scholarship fund into Jenna Robinson Charities so they can provide funds to raise awareness for epilepsy research in Mississippi.
The Ballerina Ball, presented by the Bannister Foundation, Inc., will raise funds for Jenna Robinson Charities.
The gala will celebrate the lives of Gulf Coast artist Pati Bannister, as well as Jenna Robinson, and their dedication to the arts, the foundation said. Dancers from Island School will also perform.
The event starts at 7 p.m. Dec. 2 at Climb CDC and will include live entertainment for Blackwater Brass and a silent auction featuring works from Bannister’s private collection. Tickets can be purchased at bannisterfoundation.org.
“I think it will be a good time for a good cause,” Michelle Robinson said. “It’s a great date night for parents and perfect for Christmas shopping.”
Robinson said she hopes young people will come and check out Bannister’s classic works that usually feature young women or children.
“Her art is so different from what is popular now,” Michelle Robinson said. “Yes, she painted the girl. But the true art, to me, is what’s behind the girl ... they’re really something beautiful to look at.”
Looking forward, Hild and Michelle Robinson hope Jenna Robinson Charities can fund several ideas or events, such as:
- Fund epilepsy awareness
- Provide funding and epilepsy training for teachers and police officers
- Create exposure for SUDEP (Sudden Unexpected Death In Epilepsy). The Robinson family says Jenna died from SUDEP, but it can not be ruled a cause of death in Mississippi.
- Help encourage young people to participate and enjoy the arts
Already changing lives
Hild and Michelle Robinson believe their sister is smiling down on them for all the work they’ve done in her name.
“That sassy little redhead is loving every moment that her name and face is on everything,” Hild said, adding that Jenna tried to convince their family multiple times that the Krewe of Neptune ball was actually her 16th birthday party.
“I think she would love to see how her charity has helped people and how much she’s helped people without realizing it,” Michelle Robinson said. “I could just see her flipping that red curl.”
Jenna was inspiration to every dancer who walked through the doors at the studio, Hild said. Jenna was always encouraging but brutally honest if she had to be, and she didn’t care if people got mad at her. Jenna wanted dancers to be best dancers they could be.
Jenna’s epilepsy was especially challenging, because where her seizures came from in her brain changed constantly. There was no set trigger.
But dance was her outlet, Hild said, no matter how bad she was feeling that day.
“There were days she’d have a grand mal seizure in the morning and mom would would try to get her to stay home, and she refused,” Hild said. “She was like, ‘Nope, Mom, we’re going.’ It became her therapy and her outlet.”
Jenna used dance to let her emotions — the feelings she had about not being able to do a lot things normal teens were able to do, like drive and have alone time. It inspired other students to work harder in class and use dance as their therapy for whatever was going on in their lives, too.
“Even after passing, she’s still a role model,” Michelle Robinson said. “People don’t realize what she dealt with every day.”
About the series
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.