Elon mother-and-daughter team help cancer patients celebrate life

Jessica Shepps ’12 and her mother, Stacy, helped a North Carolina nonprofit that works with cancer patients expand its presence in the mid-Atlantic.

Jessica Shepps ’12 and her mother, Stacy, hold a photo of Stacy’s sister, Cathy Wilhelm, who died of breast cancer in 2005, and her daughter.
Jessica Shepps ’12 and her mother, Stacy, hold a photo of Stacy’s sister, Cathy Wilhelm, who died of breast cancer in 2005, and her daughter.[/caption]Jessica Shepps ’12 was already familiar with breast cancer when she first learned about Little Pink Houses of Hope, a North Carolina nonprofit that brings women fighting the disease to beach resorts around the country for a week of relaxation and bonding with their families.

Her aunt died of breast cancer. Her mother had only recently gone into remission after discovering cancer during a routine mammogram and seeking aggressive treatment. Sitting among friends at a Zeta Tau Alpha sorority event on an autumn evening in 2011, Shepps couldn’t believe what she was hearing from the founder of Little Pink Houses of Hope. Work with families to inspire optimism and love? At the beach? At no cost to the families? “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the coolest thing. I want to get involved!’” Shepps recalls.

Three years later, Shepps is more than involved—she’s an integral part of growing an organization that assists more than 130 families each year to overcome the emotional and psychological scars of the disease. And this summer marks the first time she’ll direct a retreat when she travels to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Once there, about a dozen women and their husbands will reconnect and, in the words of Little Pink’s mission statement, “celebrate life” with time to reflect and activities that include fishing trips, golf outings, surfing lessons and more. Shepps will oversee the efforts of additional volunteers assigned to prepare meals and complete errands for patients.

“There isn’t anything like this. It’s just a getaway for families,” Shepps says. “A lot of times, breast cancer charities or organizations come with a ‘catch.’ It’s great to see families get there and say, ‘Wait, there’s no counseling and we just get to relax?’”

Shepps first volunteered for Little Pink Houses after meeting its founder, Jeanine Patten-Coble, during that October evening at the ZTA event. The sorority focuses its philanthropic efforts on promoting breast cancer awareness and education. Patten-Coble was on campus to spread word about her fledgling organization. At the same time, Shepps was looking for a cause to support as part of her entry into the Miss Delaware pageant back in her home state. The family connections. The sorority’s focus on philanthropy. Little Pink Houses of Hope seemed to be the perfect organization for which Shepps would fundraise.

Patten-Coble was skeptical because of the pageant involvement, but she gave Shepps the benefit of the doubt. Beauty pageant or not, here was a woman who wanted to help. Not only would Shepps prove her mettle by completing administrative tasks in Burlington, but by late the following spring, she and her mother, Stacy, had volunteered at a North Carolina beach retreat. The duo soon convinced Patten-Coble that Delaware was the perfect location to expand Little Pink Houses beyond the Carolinas.

The mother-and-daughter team secured beach houses and volunteers in Bethany Beach, Del., to hold a retreat there three months later. It’s been an annual program ever since with additional retreats also held just to the south in Ocean City, Md. Shepps described her role with Little Pink Houses of Hope as incredibly rewarding. Though it pains her to learn of retreat guests who later succumb to cancer, she takes comfort in knowing that she’s part of a support system for women and their families. Now that she has volunteered for several years—her full-time job is with an information technology services and staffing company in Baltimore—she’s been tapped to direct the 2015 retreat in the Virgin Islands as Little Pink Houses travels to the Caribbean for the third consecutive year.

“I’ve watched her grow from an Elon student who started with ‘I’d like to volunteer,’ to a young woman who singlehandedly helped bring our organization to Delaware, to now a very compassionate woman who will be leading this year’s retreat in St. John,” Patten-Coble says. “She’ll be the youngest retreat director we’ve ever had, and that’s because we’re confident in her ability to keep our values at heart while creating an incredible time for the couples who come.”