Smith: Penngrove native Shelby Pope writes her heart out — and goes easy on the sun

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Shelby Pope ... Shelby Pope.

Unless you know her outright, you may be thinking her name rings a bell and for some reason elicits images of an old Penngrove farmhouse transformed on TV into a dream home.

Or, perhaps you may recall reading something written by a Shelby Pope. Might it have appeared in the New York Times?

Good memory.

Shelby was 12 when producers of ABC-TV’s former “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” were struck by the medical/environmental condition that showed itself at age 5.


BY WAY OF REVIEW, the now 27-year-old Shelby said, “The sun can hurt me.”

Polymorphous light eruption leaves her, in essence, allergic to sunlight.

Before a national TV audience in 2004, “Extreme Makeover” host Ty Pennington asked her, “What happens when the sun hits you?”

She replied, “I get an itchy rash that doesn’t go away. Her mother, Caroline, interjected, “Then she can go into shock.”

In just one week, the worn out, 99-year-old country house that the pair shared with Shelby’s dad, Matt, and younger sister, Madison, was torn down and an army of volunteers that local merchants provisioned with building materials and furnishings erected a new one with features worth an estimated $1.5 million: a covered pool, a deep, wrap-around porch, all sorts of light-shielding technology.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Shelby, who thrived in the sun-safe house and went on to graduate from Petaluma High in '09. “My parents and I remain so grateful to the community.”


TODAY, SHELBY SAID, she lives still with the sunlight sensitivity that more than once put in her in the emergency room as a kid.

“I’ve gotten better over the years at managing it,” she said. Shelby takes precautions before spending much time outdoors.

And indoors, she writes.

Living now in Berkeley, Shelby is doing wonderfully as a freelance journalist and contract writer. One of her recent pieces, published in the New York Times, introduces the 14-year-old girl, Maxine McCormick, who competes in fly casting and just might be the greatest the sport has ever seen.

Two years ago, Shelby hung out with serious pigeon fanciers and wrote a story that was published in the Washington Post.

“I like going into someone’s world and doing a deep dive,” Shelby told me.

Any number of people helped to inspire and cultivate her love of writing and her craft. She cites two in particular:

Anne Belden was her journalism teacher and campus newspaper advisor at SRJC, where she studied before moving on to Cal. And Gabe Meline, now KQED’s senior arts editor, mentored — and paid! — her as an intern at the North Bay Bohemian.

“Those two people from Sonoma County really shaped the way I write,” Shelby said.

In addition to her freelance journalism, she writes a column for Oakland Magazine and creates the concise biographies of doctors that appear in publications of the UCSF Medical Center.

“It’s something new every day, which is exciting,” Shelby said.

Here she is, 14 years after her introduction to America as the Penngrove kid who hid from the sun, brightening lives with her words.

You can reach columnist Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and

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