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." • 612-673-7144