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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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.
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.