By Janelle Davis
Shelley Skellington is a survivor in more ways than one. Her son, Joseph, was born with a rare blood disorder and a cleft palate. He spent a lot of time in the hospital throughout his childhood. “I would cry on many occasions for the obstacles Joseph had to face with surgeries on his cleft palate, ear surgeries, and the blood disorder,” Shelley said. Through this, Joseph’s strength kept Shelley strong. “He would say, ‘Mama it’s going to be alright. We are strong,’ She shared.
Despite Joseph’s conditions, he remained happy and positive and would light up a room wherever he went. His teachers loved him because he was so polite and respectful. In 2017, Joseph was diagnosed with AML Leukemia. In September 2019, Shelley lost Joseph to Leukemia when he was 29 years old.
Shelley admits that the grieving process has been difficult. After losing Joseph, she experienced depression and anxiety for the first time in her life. She shared how she seeks comfort. As she went through the initial loss of her son, Hospice in Liverpool was a very good outlet for her. She explained that for the first three years after Joseph passed, she had a bereavement counselor. Then she retired leaving Shelley feeling like she lost someone important to her again.
“I had to learn to build a support network of people who have also lost a child. I reached out to friends who were willing to listen. Most of all, I want to keep my son’s memory alive,” Shelley offered. She keeps and cherishes her son’s belongings. One that is particularly special is one of the notes that Joseph wrote to her. “He called me his Wonder Woman because I was a single mother. He would write me letters saying what a great mom I was to him. I carry one of the little notes he wrote telling me that I am a wonderful mother and how much he loves and cherishes me,” she shared.
“As a mother who is scared for their child’s health when your child is a shining light with such a positive outlook, all you can do is fight harder,” Shelley learned.
Shelley also heals through helping others. She recently gifted Joseph’s Taylor Swift collection to a young man battling cancer. It was rewarding for Shelley to make such a generous gesture making someone happy, while carrying on Joseph’s memory.
Her family has been a great support system for her, including her husband, Rick, who loved Joseph. She shares how close they were with the same goofy humor and kindness.
Joseph’s youngest sister, Maya, is also one of her support systems in dealing with the loss of Joseph. They often reminisce about the good times, the laughter, and the crazy fun stuff they all did together. “Maya misses her older brother very much because he understood her and appreciated her as his little sister,” Shelley explained.
After she graduated from Oswego State University with a degree in psychology, Shelley pursued a career in human services working with individuals with chronic health and mental health conditions. She did this for about a decade before working with refugees and immigrants, along with advocating for language services for limited English proficiency individuals. “My whole life, even as a child, I always wanted to help the underdog,” she shared.
Shelley has been instrumental in collaborating with legal services to assist individuals in the naturalization process. She connected people to services in their community, so they could live happy, healthy lives. She also connected homeless people to housing and other services.
Currently, Shelley works for Elite Home Health Care as a community outreach representative connecting people to homecare. “Elite has allowed me to work at a place of employment that appreciates what I do and the connections I make. I feel alive again after working daunting jobs that sucked the life out of me and where I was considered just another number,” Shelley shared. She explains that you have to be in a good place after losing a child. Her manager at Elite recently sent her care package with sunflower items, which was her son’s favorite flower, along with a card recognizing how hard September is for her.
Helping people while connecting them to home care makes Shelley feel good. She helps people battling cancer and she feels she can relate to what they are going through. She appreciates being able to help them.
Shelley received the award of an advocate of the year for Nosotros Gala Hispanic Heritage Month in 2017 for advocating for language access for the Latino Community and setting the precedence of the obligation to interpretation. She became involved in the Latino community teaching Cuban Salsa Dance lessons for 10 years. Joseph would help her teach lessons and was also an avid salsa dancer.
Shelley was recently appointed as a commissioner on the Onondaga Human Rights Commission by Mayor Ben Walsh. She will be an advocate for language access and work with the commission to better serve the Syracuse community.
Shelley survives through the inspiration Joseph has always been to her and everyone in his life, “I read cards that people sent to him during his journey of Leukemia. They all talk about how wonderful of a person he was and the kindness he gave to them. He was a very inspirational person.”