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God's Photo Album

By Lisa Benoit

When Hawaiian schoolteacher Shelly Mecum and her camera-toting students went on a one-day quest for God, they ended up saving their school.

Q U I C K S C A N

Family Television Awards

Photo by Elisabeth Fall

Three years ago, in a remote area on the island of Oahu once covered with sugarcane fields, Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Ewa Beach was preparing to close its doors forever. With growing debts and a dwindling enrollment, the future of the small Catholic grade school seemed hopeless. Then came Shelly Mecum.

Sparked by unflappable faith and a deep love for her students, the thin, blonde, 33-year-old fourth-grade teacher envisioned a simple and totally original rescue mission—in one day, she would send all her students out on a “search to find God.” Armed with cameras, notebooks and pencils, they would record their experiences and put them all into a book. They would sell their creation and use the profits to save the school.

Little did Shelly know that her God-inspired dream would explode into a project that would touch the hearts of business leaders, national media personalities, best-selling book agents and authors, and international publishing houses.

“We’ve had extraordinary help from people who wanted the school to succeed and wanted to be a part of it,” Shelly says, looking back. “This was not done by one hand; this was done by a thousand hands.”


An Inspiration to Save the School

Fresh from living nine years in Japan with her Navy husband, Bill, and her two sons, John and Joseph, Shelly was on staff only two months when she learned during a faculty meeting that the school would be closing. Heartsick, she was determined to find a way to prevent the school from closing and she knew God held the key.

Shelly says that God answered her one day while she was reading her students’ writing. “It was like a thunderbolt from heaven,” she remembers. “I saw the entire book.”

The next day, she approached her principal, Dennis Sasaki, with the idea. Cautiously, he agreed to let her go forward.

Sasaki recalls the start of the project: “Shelly told the children, ‘You can be dreamers and you can write. And to prove that, we are going to write a book and we are going to save this school from closing.’”


An Idea Takes Form

From that small seed, the project grew into a concrete plan. The school’s 168 students, plus 130 family, faculty and parish members, would board 14 buses traveling to points all over the island on a quest for God. They would take pictures of God and write about it in their notebooks.

To fund the project, Shelly knew she would have to find a “secular” angle to attract donations and media attention. She decided to leave that detail up to God, and one day she awoke with the idea of “literacy.”

Armed with literacy as her selling point, Shelly convinced a local publishing house to take on the project. The publisher sent professional photographers to train the students and Shelly helped them polish their writing skills through writing assignments.

The school set a project date—April 23, 1998—and hoped for the best. “Without the day, there is no book,” Shelly says.


Counting on the Generosity of Others

Still, a ton of logistics had to be addressed. She had to figure out how she was going to equip 300 people with cameras and notebooks and transport them to and from a wide variety of God-inspired picturesque destinations in one day. She contacted businesses all over Oahu to ask for help. Their generosity overwhelmed her.

Companies offered helicopters, submarines, glass-bottom boats and trolleys to carry the students all over the island.

Her confidence bolstered, Shelly, with the help of the school staff, started phoning national television shows to promote the book before a single picture was taken. They called Nightline, The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Nightline contacted the local network affiliate to cover the event and the Oprah and Rosie shows expressed interest in a possible future guest appearance.

The day was fast approaching and Shelly still had no cameras. In desperation, she called Fuji headquarters in Japan. The assistant to the president, Dustin Tomonoh, answered. He immediately had his Hawaii distributors send 300 Fuji Quicksnap disposable cameras to the school. He also guaranteed the photo processing.

“I was very impressed,” Tomonoh says of Shelly Mecum. “She was very enthusiastic and had a dream.”

Obtaining 14 free luxury motorcoaches was in itself a miracle, but they were finally procured a mere six days before the special day.


Help From God

From the beginning and all through the project, Shelly felt that the help she needed most would be from the very person the students would be seeking. She asked her friends and family and anyone she met to pray for the project.

“She knows that this whole project and her life is guided by God,” Sasaki says. “Anything that she does, any venture or project, she asks individuals to pray.”

Shelly called the Carmelite Sisters on Oahu. She even phoned Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Motherhouse in India and spoke directly to the superior, Sister Nirmala, to ask for prayers. Sister Nirmala assured her that she would have members of the order across the globe praying that her children would find God that day.

Finally the day came and the weather was beautiful. At 8 a.m., equipped with their disposable cameras, notebooks, pens and pencils, Shelly’s students, their families and parish members boarded 14 motorcoach tour buses destined for spots scattered throughout Oahu.

Hazel Ibarra, 11, boarded a bus with her parents, Nestor and Myrna, her sister, Jennifer, and her three-year-old brother, Joshua.

Her father recalled with a chuckle how it had turned into a family affair. “My boss came to me and said, ‘There is a voice on my answering machine asking if her daddy could take off.’ Hazel had never spoken on an answering machine before so she didn’t leave her name or anything, but I knew it was my daughter.”

Ibarra’s employer let him go.

The project drew island-wide media attention and Honolulu newspaper photographers tagged along. They all searched for God at the shore, up in the mountains and in the forests. They scoured places where people gather and places where people were scarce. They visited historic sites, places of worship, seats of government, a former factory, fancy resorts, a famous cemetery and a popular restaurant.

At Punchbowl National Cemetery they witnessed a 21-gun salute. On the floor of the state legislature, a state representative had the lawmakers pause to pray for the group.

Some entered a submarine off the coast of Waikiki to seek God among the coral reefs. Others searched for signs of the divine on the surface of the waves on a 48-foot yacht. For two hours on a glass-bottom boat in Kaneohe Bay, young photographers sought out angelfish and other obvious signs of God’s presence.

They also found God in such unlikely places as a neighborhood park, tourist shops, a Navy destroyer and the Hard Rock Cafe.

Eight hours after the buses left the schoolyard, the students and their families returned happy, but exhausted, and reconvened in the school’s field where they gathered in the shape of a heart for one last picture. A heart was the perfect symbol for the day’s end.

All had found God that day, including parishioner Peggy Crowell. “I had never experienced seeing God as I had that day,” says Crowell. “Ever since that day, I see him everywhere and in everything, especially in people. It is awesome.”


Taking the Next Step

The next step was to go to press but, in talking with her local publisher, Shelly came to the heartbreaking realization that her big dreams could not be fulfilled with a locally based company. If indeed she wanted to pursue the national potential that seemed to be present in the renewed interest expressed by Oprah Winfrey and others, she would have to find a bigger publisher. It was a huge risk for an unknown author.

“There was no publisher, there was no agent, only this inner flame that God never let diminish,” Shelly recalls.

Just like the project itself, Shelly saw God’s encouragement in signs all around her—a shooting star during her nightly prayers or a rainbow that lasted three hours.


Encouragement to Move Forward

For one year of uncertainty, she existed in what she called “the shadowlands.” During this time, she believes, God sharpened her speaking abilities and strengthened her faith.

One of the people who came into her life at this time was Hawaii resident Wally Amos, literacy champion and former chocolate-chip cookie-maker. She decided to call him for advice after being inspired by his autobiography. “When I called him, I was at one of the lowest points and really nervous to call someone quite so famous,” she says.

Her call was met with kindness. In fact, he called her five times that day. He encouraged her to follow her dreams and to look for a national publisher.

Amos told her, “Every ‘no’ is one step closer to a ‘yes.’ Anyone who can’t see lacks vision. Dismiss them, they are not called.”


Bringing the Book to Life

Renewed in spirit, Shelly began what would turn into two years devoted to the book, acting as its fund-raiser, marketer and indefatigable promoter.

Her persistence paid off at the Honolulu Literary Conference where she listened to a lecture by John Laudon, executive director of HarperSanFrancisco. He recommended that any author who wanted to be published should be able to describe his or her book in 30 seconds. Shelly left and practiced her book “pitch” in the bathroom until she had it down to half a minute. When Laudon made himself available to talk to authors, Shelly waited in line.

The meeting left an impression on Laudon. He encouraged Shelly to get an agent, so she introduced herself to literary agent Roger Jellinek. He was instantly attracted to the book and charmed by Shelly’s passion for the project.

“The idea is so simple, yet so universal,” Jellinek says. “I’m not a particularly religious person, but I found myself looking to see where I could find God if I had a camera with me. It’s just such a simple idea. I don’t think it’s just a book, I think it’s a movement.”

The day after the seminar, Shelly called Jellinek for a meeting. That day, he signed on as her agent.

After a few meetings, Shelly realized that she would have to write the book’s narrative—a seemingly insurmountable task in her eyes. Encouraged by her husband, Bill, and aided by her parents, Richard and Jeannette Foco, Shelly decided to take a year off from teaching to concentrate on writing the book.

“I was really under the fantasy that all I had to do was type the notebooks and sort through the photos,” Shelly says.

Jellinek wanted Shelly to think beyond the coffee-table picturebook she originally had in mind and include the uplifting story about the project itself. He believed the story leading up to the publication of the book was as interesting as the actual day of searching for God.

Armed with her boxes of photos and notebooks, Shelly began writing. Jellinek guided her through the process, confident in her abilities.

Shelly went through 4,000 pictures, distilling them down to 600 images. A neighbor helped her type the 300 journals.

Organizing the notebooks by bus, Shelly highlighted all of the written observations that “jumped out” at her, cut them out and put them on index cards. She then matched the journal entry with a photo from the same bus. From these images and captions a theme for each bus emerged.

The adventures of each bus became the book’s chapters. Throughout the story Shelly wove in the account of her own experiences in bringing the project to life.


In Search of a Publisher

After finishing the first few chapters, Shelly and Jellinek took the book to New York to look for a publisher. Shelly first stopped in San Francisco by herself for a meeting with HarperSanFrancisco. Gideon Weil, associate editor, remembers his staff being instantly enamored.

“She first came to our executive director, John Laudon, and he looked at it and pretty much fell in love with it right away,” Weil says. “It’s such a sweet, inspiring story. He showed it to me and I agreed with him—I saw what he saw.”

It was not only the book that impressed them, but Shelly herself. “She is so dynamic and passionate about the school, about the children and about the project that it didn’t take much for us to get committed,” Weil says, “and we acted pretty quickly.”

After the meeting, Shelly continued on her way to New York to meet Jellinek. That day they received bids from Warner and other major book publishers.

The project seemed to impress everyone Shelly met, Jellinek says. “Shelly can describe this book in 30 seconds, five minutes or five hours—and she absolutely loves to do it.”

Shelly eventually secured a deal with HarperSanFrancisco. On Ash Wednesday, she was given six weeks to finish the manuscript. She had the 40 days of Lent to write.

Few people knew the terror that filled her as she faced this task. Bill was off the island on deployment for the entire time.

To help out, Shelly’s father flew in to stay with her during her sons’ Easter break while Shelly wrote. He kept her focused and strong. By Easter Sunday, the text was finished.


A Dream Fulfilled

The final result is an eight-inch square hardcover volume, with all 192 pages in color. The initial printing was 75,000 copies.

“I have published hundreds of books and I’ve had some best-sellers,” Laudon says, adding that he has a “hunch” this will be another one.

Weil agrees. “The book is special—we have high hopes,” he says. “It shows that God is everywhere; in the community and in their families. There are some surprising shots.”

Shelly collected endorsements for God’s Photo Album from more than 35 famous authors such as Jack Canfield, who wrote Chicken Soup for the Soul, Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time) and Richard Paul Evans (The Christmas Box). Wally Amos wrote the Foreword.

Shelly has set up a nonprofit corporation called “Shelly’s Workshop” for the book’s expected revenue. The book’s six-figure contract will not only save the school, but also keep it open and educating children into perpetuity. Approximately 70 percent of the proceeds will go to the school to support new construction and other projects.

For the release of the book, Shelly arranged for her students again to board buses and planes to attend all the book signings in Hawaii.


A Continuing Adventure

For Shelly, the adventure continues. The first-time author has been cast into the world of keynote speaking. She has addressed several major conventions and is now a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Visitors Bureau for their national Aloha Tour to publicize the values of Hawaii.

She has been nominated for an achievement award by her alma mater, the University of San Diego.

Throughout this journey, Shelly discovered that her search for God demanded not only a notepad and camera but also an unwavering faith.

“This is what I learned—when you leap off that cliff in faith, that’s the fastest way to learn to fly,” Shelly says. “And if for some reason your wings do not materialize—and this is a quote from Wally Amos—‘God always gives you a parachute.’

“And one more thing I learned is that there is absolutely nothing you can’t do if the engine of it is love and if it is fueled by prayer and you let God drive.”

God’s Photo Album, by Shelly Mecum, is available for $23 at local bookstores. The inspirational book can also be ordered online from the publisher, Harper Collins, at www. harpercollins.com.

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Lisa Benoit is a reporter and photographer for the Hawaii Catholic Herald. She was previously a reporter for the Denver Catholic Register, and has traveled to Guatemala, El Salvador, Burundi and Uganda to cover stories.


 
 

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