July 2018 was a big month for us. We moved to the big city of Fayette, AL because of my husband’s pastoral appointment. Moving is always a big deal, and we had done it many times before. Because of the nature of the itinerant system of the UMC, pastors get moved around to different cities. And although we had done it many times prior, this time it was harder. Mainly because my oldest, Zoe, was going into high school.
Going into high school is a big deal, even for someone who has been in the same school system their entire life. Throw in the fact that you are starting high school in a brand-new city where you don’t know anyone – needless to say, there was a lot of anxiety in my little Zoe girl and her momma.
A few weeks after moving to Fayette, I was invited to lunch with my new friend Brandi Davis. I was telling her about being nervous for the girls going to school, and that I needed to schedule an appointment with the FCHS guidance counselor to get Zoe’s schedule. Brandi proceeded to tell me how wonderful the counselor is, and how she had been Brandi’s teacher when she was younger. Her name is Heather Whitley.
Then she shared with me that July had been a big month for the Whitley family as well – because Heather had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
I called and set up a meeting with Heather the next week. I immediately knew I was going to love this lady. Her smile truly did light up the room. She put me and Zoe both at ease. She encouraged Zoe to take AP classes, something we never would have done or attempted. But she had faith in Zoe and knew she could do it – and she was right. I left that day feeling so much peace knowing that Heather Whitley would be there watching over my girl.
I’m a city girl. I’m from Birmingham. But in our many ministry moves, we have been blessed to live in 2 small towns, and I have to say that the small-town life has grown on me. One reason is how our community came together and supported Heather on this cancer journey. I had never seen anything like it. Immediately, I saw the pink “Team Whitley” shirts. I saw social media posts made by the teachers about how much they loved and cared for Heather. I saw posts from so many students who she has taught and cared for over her 26 years of teaching. When I talked to her, she told me she was just overwhelmed by the gifts, cards, and prayers from all the different churches in our community. She said these 4 words got her through this hard season: Faith, Family, Friends, Fayette. Those are some of my favorite ‘F’ words!! Watching how Fayette loved Heather Whitley was one of the main things that made me fall in love with Fayette.
On September 7, 2018, the second home football game of the season and my third Fayette football game to attend ever was where I really saw love poured out on Heather. The football booster club had pink paw stickers with HW made for players to wear on their helmets. There was a presentation at halftime where they called her down to the field. The band dedicated the final song of the show (Can’t Stop the Feeling) to her and gave her a gift.
I saw Heather just a few days after that at Sweet Annie’s Boutique. I told her although I didn’t really know her, I was just amazed at the outpouring of love, and how that was a testament to the life she has lived – giving to all these students over the years. What she said next really stuck with me. Instead of thanking me or telling me how hard this has been, she said, “you know, during all this, I mainly think about those who are going through this same thing, and they have no one to support them through it. I pray for those who are alone and battling this.” And she meant it – with all sincerity. She cared more about others while walking through one of the darkest valleys of her life. I was just again amazed at this woman.
Later that day I was reading my Jesus Calling devotion. It said:
“Open your mind and heart – your entire being – to receive My Love in full measure. So many of My children limp through their lives starved for Love because they haven’t learned the art of receiving. This is essentially an act of faith: believing that I love you with boundless, everlasting Love. The art of receiving is also a discipline: training your mind to trust Me, coming close to Me with confidence.”
I immediately thought of my short convo with Heather. She had learned the art of receiving – spiritually and physically speaking. Spiritually, in this time where many often run from God when the hard things shake us to our core, she ran right to God. She constantly spoke of her faith and confidence in the Lord during this journey. And physically, she received all this love with such grace, often thinking of others who were less fortunate than her.
I found out back in October 2021 that Mrs. Whitley was going to retire at the end of November. I knew right then that I had to write this blog in honor of her. I had lunch with her on her very first day of retired life! We talked and laughed and it truly seems as though I’ve known her much longer than 3.5 years.
Since I haven’t grown up knowing her, I had to get a quick bio. She grew up in the big town of Vernon, AL. She graduated from Lamar County High School in 1990. She then went to Brewer State (now Bevill State) and on to the University of Alabama. She majored in secondary education for social science and political science. She then received her master’s degree in school counseling. She taught for 25 years in the state of Alabama and 1 year at a private school in Columbus, MS.
She was a teacher at Lamar County High School and taught 7th – 11th grade history from 1996-1999. She then became the LCHS guidance counselor from 1999 – 2003. In January 2004, she became the guidance counselor at Fayette Elementary School. And in August 2015, she became the Fayette County High School counselor until she retired.
As I stated previously, July 2018 was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy, and had to have chemo and radiation. She had 4 treatments of chemo (Red Devil) and 4 more treatments of another chemo, Taxol. She also went through 20 sessions of radiation – everyday for 4 weeks. She ended the “bad chemo” on 12/20/2018. Started radiation mid January 2019. And September 12, 2019 marked the end of all chemo treatments, where she got to ring that glorious bell!
Hair loss, weight gain, and menopause are just a few of the negatives of her cancer treatment journey. But you would never know it. She always was so upbeat, with that same smile on her face that lights up a room. She shares her story so that she can help others that might be going through something similar.
Just to show how much people love Mrs. Whitley, when she made her announcement of a new job at Bevill State, a local community college, she had 90 likes in 9 minutes – and 832 likes 12 hours later! And I believe that is because she has given so well all her life, people just can’t help but love her.
I recently was at a meeting where Heather was awarded with the Progress Club Woman of the Year award. When she gave her thank you, she shared the lyrics to an old southern gospel song that her dad loves. It is called “Give the World a Smile”. The lyrics were this:
“Give the world a smile each day
Helping someone on life’s way
From the paths of sin
Bring the wanderers in
To the Master’s home to stay
Help to cheer the lone and sad
Help to make some pilgrim glad
Let your life so be
That all the world might see
That you are serving Jesus with a smile.”
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that on my first meeting with Heather, her smile made such an impression on me. She was genuinely full of joy, and so ready to help. When I had lunch with her to find out more about her for this blog, one of the things she mentioned was that she did use her smile to help others. You never know how much good a simple smile can do for someone. She certainly does “give the world a smile”.
I’ll end with this: My Zoe is a senior this year. She graduates this Friday night. She received a tennis scholarship to Bevill State and will be attending there in the fall. And guess what? Our dear Mrs. Whitley will be there too, and Zoe has already asked her for some advice. It’s kinda like they graduated from Fayette together and now going to college together! I’m so glad to know that Mrs. Whitley will be there once again to look after my girl as she starts a new chapter in her life.
I wish I had a guidance counselor like Heather Whitley when I was in high school. But even as an adult, she has given me guidance unaware. Grateful God has crossed my path with this smiley lady.