By Dawn Hatfield
GREENVILLE — To know her was to love her. That is the general sentiment regarding the unforgettable Francesca “Franie” Shellabarger, local artist, daughter, sister, friend, and source of inspiration for many.
Franie was born on June 15, 1998, in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, to Arnold and Meliana Dorilas. She was adopted in 2011 by Timothy and Angela (Bowser) Shellabarger of Arcanum. She graduated from Franklin Monroe High School and MVCTC’s Hospitality Program in 2018. Following graduation, Franie spent a year in Project Search gaining a Star Certificate before becoming involved in Darke County Board of Developmental Disabilities (DarkeDD), where she formed many meaningful relationships.
When Franie suddenly passed away on December 20, 2022, the following post appeared on Darke County Board of Developmental Disabilities Facebook page: “There are really no words to express our sadness at the loss of our friend, Franie Shellabarger. She was a light in all of our lives and to everyone who knew her. Franie lived a life unlike one that most of us will ever know, and yet she led with grace, kindness, acceptance, gratitude and love. She found solace in her creativity and these principles were the basis of her work. She had a great desire to inspire others through her words….and she did just that!”
Franie’s final year of life had been an exciting one. She had recently begun selling her artwork at the Mini Mall of All in downtown Greenville in addition to her online sales. Franie also stepped outside her comfort zone to teach an online art class, which hosted individuals with disabilities from all over the state of Ohio. She visited schools, participated in conferences, and simply helped to spread acceptance, love, and inspiration wherever she went.
Sue Huston, Community Connections and Advocacy Coordinator, worked closely with Franie during her time at DarkeDD. Huston spoke with The Daily Advocate on Feb. 6. Huston said, “I always say I have the best job. I really do love the people that I work with. Losing Franie was very, very difficult. She really had an impact on people. She definitely had a life that really challenged her to keep a positive outlook. She worked really hard to stay positive. Somebody had suggested to her when she was young that she paint or create art as a way to deal with some of her pain. She said she found such solace in that—she said, ‘I can paint for hours and the time just flies by.’ What I really love about her art is that she added words of inspiration, and that became a theme in a lot of her paintings.”
“Franie was also very active in attending our advocacy meetings and conferences, but she and I worked a lot on her art—I made sure anytime an [artistic] opportunity came up, I connected her with it,” recalled Huston.
Huston recalled the courage she saw in Franie and her determination to spread a positive message even when she was scared. “She was so nervous to teach that class, but she did a great job. Everybody loved their pandas, and then she came out on the other side of that saying she wanted to do more. Another time, she presented at a conference we attended. She spoke in front of about a hundred people and told her story. Again, she was very nervous to do that, but every time she did something new, it just built her self-confidence.”
Having her art on display at the Greenville Public Library (GPL) was one of Franie’s goals, and to honor her memory, her paintings will be showcased on the second floor of GPL for the entire month of February.
Additionally, there are many other ways Franie’s spirit will live on. Franie’s adoptive family owns Refined at 529 S. Broadway Street in Greenville. They have added a line of products in honor of their daughter/sister, Franie, featuring her artwork, handwriting, and mantra. These can be purchased in-store or online at RefinedGoods.com.
“‘Love on’ was kind of her mantra; she used that a lot,” explained Huston.
At this year’s A Night in Hollywood, presented by GHS Supply Chain Management class, a memorial for Franie as well as a silent auction/art sale will be held in her memory. The event will be held at Radiant Lighthouse on Saturday, March 4. For more information visit A Night in Hollywood 2023 on Facebook.
The Fine Arts division of the Great Darke County Fair will present an honorary award named the Francesca Shellabarger Award in future art competitions.
A piece of Franie’s artwork will be displayed at the Art House Gallery, Inc., a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, at 122 E. 3rd Street in Greenville.
Finally, the Lighthouse Club, created in 2019 as a partnership between DarkeDD and local artists, Amanda Mote and Tamera Miller McNulty, will teach an art class each June in Franie’s memory to honor her own courageous step of teaching her first online painting class in June 2022.
Franie’s obituary read, “She had the spirit of an artist as she loved to create art, dance, and sing. Her family meant the world to her, and nothing brought her more joy than spending her life with them. Franie was a light in this dark world and never let her hardships keep her down. She defied all the odds set against her. She loved Jesus and clung to Him for strength. Franie truly had a beautiful soul.”
Huston said, “Many of us own original works by Franie, and we will cherish them. They will forever be a reminder of her light in this world and a life well lived.”
On December 15, 2022, less than a week before she died, Franie posted to Facebook: “Do not ever forget life is short… I have a great support, and a great family behind me… they’ll always be there no matter what… I’m happy to call them my family forever and ever until we should leave the earth.”
To honor Franie’s memory, one might heed her comment to students at the first Tri-Village Elementary Disabilities Awareness Day in May 2022. Franie told students what hurts the most is to be ignored, saying, “It means a lot for you to just say, ‘Hi.’ It means we’re not alone.”
“So many times we are afraid, thinking, ‘I might offend someone [who is differently-abled],’ but in my mind, it is always better to err on the side of kindness,” said Huston. “So, say hello. That is really what Franie’s message was.”
National Developmental Disabilities Month is held every March in the United States. Visit NationalToday.com for more information.
Reach Daily Advocate Reporter Dawn Hatfield at [email protected] or 937-569-0066.