Advertisement - Click to support our sponsors.

Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 2, 2000

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
"We asked (students) to go and find God and when you find him,
take his picture and write about it." said teacher Shelly Mecum.

Angel of
Ewa Beach

Children share their thoughts
on God with teacher Shelly Mecum's
help and a national book
contract to back them

By Betty Shimabukuro


"GOD lives in the Hard Rock Cafe."

Is that irreverence or innocence? Actually neither, it's faith.

The 5-year-old who made that statement, the school she attends and the teacher who sent her on a search for God -- the whole lot of them are packed with faith.

For this they've been rewarded with a book deal with the second largest publisher in the country. The advance alone was a six-figure amount.

"I took a picture of my brother
because I love him and
God is love."

Brian Conway, age 6

By this time next year, the students of Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Ewa Beach will be published authors -- in a collective sense -- their work headed for a nationwide audience.

To appreciate the miracle that took place at this little parish school, you have to understand the odds against them. Harper San Francisco, the division publishing "God's Photo Album," receives something like 10,000 book proposals a year. Only 75 are published, and only 5 percent of those come from unknown authors.


The picture: Friends laughing on the beach.
The words: "I find God in happiness."

-- Seth Levy, 8


This story begins two years ago with a fourth-grade teacher who has been called "catalyst for a miracle."

Shelly Mecum thought it would be something special if the students could write a book. A simple enough concept, except that Mecum thought every child in the school, and every child's family, should contribute to the book, and then the finished product should really, truly be published. Not self-published, not photo-copied and stapled. She wanted an honest-to-God publishing house.

Speaking of God, that would be the subject matter: "We asked them to go and find God and when you find him, take his picture and write about it," Mecum says.

If faith for you is a more elusive thing, this entire enterprise may be difficult to grasp. But for this Catholic school community, it was a no-brainer.

"I am reminded when I see
a shadow, that there must be a source
of light and God is the light ."

Mark Ornellas, father, age 36

And so, just six weeks after the idea got the go-ahead, all 168 students and their families, for a total of 300 people, got on 14 buses, carrying 300 disposable cameras and 300 notebooks, and went off in different directions looking for God.

More than that, almost everything they needed, from the cameras to the buses, was provided free, by Fuji Photo Film, Roberts Hawaii Tours and many other donors.

"It kind of exploded," Mecum says. "It got much bigger than I ever envisioned."

Bigger, as in 4,000 photographs and all those filled notebooks, including the words of little Deyandra Abella, who came across God when her bus stopped at the Hard Rock Cafe.

The massive field trip might have been an end in itself, but Mecum was determined that there would be a book. She spent months courting endorsements, seeking a publisher, editing down all that material.

Which brings us to today. In a ceremony at the school this morning, all the children of Our Lady were to get the news: "God's Photo Album: Seeking God in the Gathering Place" has been sold to HarperCollins. Publication date is May 1, 2001.


The picture: A one-way street sign.
The words: "God made the sign
so people won't get hurt."

-- Ashley Wilhelm, 5


What "God's Photo Album" had to elevate it above the thousands of manuscripts HarperCollins receives annually was an incredible concept, and the amazing spirit of Shelly Mecum.

"She's incandescent as a speaker," says Mecum's agent, Roger Jellinek. "Her sense of mission is just very powerful."

Things really began to gel for Mecum when she met Jellinek last May. Jellinek, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, is now based in Hawaii, where his clients include Gardner McKay, author of the novel "Toyer."

"Within minutes, without seeing anything on paper, my instinct was, this was a wonderful project," Jellinek recalls. "I thought it was a phenomenal idea, beautifully simple and extraordinarily attractive."

"I saw God by the peacock.
He was feeding it lots of food and
asking, 'Are you happy?' "

Victoria Souza, age 8

This is a considerable vote of confidence; the Jellinek & Murray Literary Agency sees perhaps 10 or 15 book proposals every week and handles a very small percentage of them.

Jellinek took Mecum to the Maui Writer's Conference in September and set up a half-dozen interviews with editors, "and they were very, very impressed with her."

Then came visits with editors in San Francisco and New York and -- compressing the story a bit -- in January, HarperCollins made an offer on the book.

"To pitch a story about a little place like Ewa Beach in New York City is astonishing," Jellinek says.

Mecum says simply that it was all meant to be.

"I'm always surprised, but I also always expected this could happen, once I honestly believed that God was in charge of this," Mecum says.


The picture: Waves crashing on a beach.
The words: "I found God in the waves
because the waves are lovely,
like God."

-- Holden Moi, 10


When this project began, Our Lady was facing what might have been its last school year. Enrollment was down and the financial situation was grim, principal Dennis Sasaki says.

The book project and the publicity it generated two years ago pretty much saved the school, attracting attention and 30 new students, enough to keep the small campus solvent.

"When we left in 14 buses, everyone in the neighborhood knew we were up to something," Sasaki says.

"Who can adequately
describe God's work?
The children."

Linda Sullivan, mother, age 40

There's more to come in the form of hard cash: 70 percent of the royalties will go to the school, to be spent on scholarships and a new preschool.

Our Lady, which is tucked in right next to Campbell High School, has students in kindergarten through eighth grade, most of them from Ewa Beach.

It's an area, Sasaki says, that doesn't get a lot of respect. So along with all that the children learned from the project and the quite substantial monetary reward, comes something intangible. "We want to tell people that Ewa Beach is a nice place to be."


The picture: A pitted path in
Diamond Head Crater.
The words: "A path of loneliness
leads to a road of hope."

-- John Mecum, grade 5


So, this was a story of faith, but also of a woman's perseverance.

This Navy wife and mother of two has a new career now -- along with her share of the proceeds from "God's Photo Album" and an option with HarperCollins for a second book.

Groups in South Africa, Australia and Spain already have approached her for help putting together similar projects to support various church and school causes. Her agent says she could conceivably produce a book every year. "I think she'll be a household word in another year."

She'll stay on at Our Lady, though, as author-in-residence, which Mecum says means, "I can teach anything at will, whenever I want."

That will probably be an extension of all she has taught and learned through "God's Photo Album."

It began as a schoolwide literacy project, grew into a religious lesson, evolved into a logistical training exercise as plans were laid for the giant field trip two years ago. Lately it has become a lesson in book publishing.

But what Mecum most hopes the children will learn is to reach, to stretch, to dream. "They have to learn you must go after and pursue your dream. To the very end."

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2000 Honolulu Star-Bulletin