University of Mississippi-DeSoto graduate Mandy Shelby Little of Horn Lake learned firsthand about coping with the pain and fear of a family member fighting cancer after her father, Tommy Shelby, was diagnosed with esophagus cancer in 2005.
The Shelby family focused on getting through treatments and enjoying time together until April 2006, when Shelby lost his battle. A few years later, Little decided to use this difficult experience to take her career as an educator in a new direction.
“Working with children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was a big dream of mine for many years,” Little recalled.
Little gave up summer vacation, spring break and long holiday intermissions to work with children at St. Jude’s whose treatment schedules dictate that they receive tutoring and school sessions year-round to help maintain grade-level performance.
Staying on track with education was important to Little as she grew up in Walls and graduated from Horn Lake High in 1999. She attended Northwest Mississippi Community College in Southaven and Senatobia while working full-time as a teachers’ assistant at Horn Lake Middle School. After completing her NWCC courses, Little transferred to the UM-DeSoto campus in Southaven to work on her bachelor’s degree in education.
After graduating, Little worked as an elementary teacher at Robinsonville Elementary in Tunica County while taking masters-level courses at the DeSoto campus.
One class was so influential that Little took information and research to her supervisors in Tunica and lobbied for improvements to the gifted education program. She served as the program’s coordinator in Tunica for two years before returning to her alma mater, HLHS, to teach advanced placement and gifted English classes.
“It was a great experience – giving back to the school that had given so much to me,” Little recalled. “I enjoyed coaching the dance team and getting to know the students in my classes.”
After her second year of teaching at HLHS, Little accepted an offer at St. Jude.
“I just felt that I was being led to work at St. Jude,” she said. “I don’t know exactly how the students feel when they are sick, but I can understand how important it is for them to keep their normal life and activities. I know what happens during chemo treatments, and I understand what their parents are going through. It’s tough, but I hope that coming to class or sitting with me in their rooms can help them continue the important process of growing and learning.”
Little coordinates curriculums and tutors St. Jude patients in grades 7-12. She works with students from across the country and from different parts of the world who are being treated for cancer or other catastrophic childhood diseases.
One of the program’s goals is to keep students on track with the grade-level at their home schools. Teachers maintain contact with the students’ schools to make sure that they are keeping up-to-date with their studies.
“We want the transition from their time here to the time back in their regular school to be as smooth as possible,” Little said. “I am in constant contact with my students’ teachers. They can use their own textbooks, keep up with their assignments and take the same exams. I can grade their work and report back to their regular teacher. They can even receive report cards from their schools.
“Just because they are sick, it doesn’t mean that they should miss out on their education.”
The school program suite and classroom, which Little shares with two other teachers, was recently redesigned and outfitted by Target Corp., and includes a computer and interactive Smart Board, colorful supplies, furnishings and bookshelves loaded with reading material.
“We can sit one-on-one with students as long as they are not in isolation,” she said. “Sometimes we must wear a mask or protective gown. Their immune systems may be weakened from treatments.”
The St. Jude program is licensed as a special-purpose school by the state of Tennessee and accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Teachers meet with each student at least three times a week and may teach in up to seven different subject areas. Lessons are developed for each student’s grade and skill-level.
“Our students still prepare research papers and take the ACT,” Little said. “It’s so important for them to continue on in their education so they will have open doors for their futures.”
Little and her co-workers plan a yearly graduation ceremony for students in their senior year. Numerous celebrities have stopped by to provide the graduation address and congratulate graduates.
“Her students love her,” said Laurie Leigh, St. Jude’s school program director. “Her enthusiasm and passion for teaching is obvious. She is flexible and creative in her approach to providing school services to our patients. She is an invaluable member of our team. “
Little said she loves the challenge of working with young people facing illnesses.
“Even though our students are dealing with a daily struggle, this is really a happy, upbeat place to work,” she said. “I leave here each day with a real sense of accomplishment. I know my dad would be proud of what I’m doing.”