Michelle “Shell” Cleave was driving home from a doctor’s appointment when she saw the first sign on San Carlos Avenue, the El Granada street she has lived on for over two decades. The signs, decorated with shells, pompoms, stickers and more, were placed in neighbors’ front yards and read, “Shell, You Are Not Alone,” “Cheering You On, Michelle” and “Love From San Carlos Ave.”
Last month, Cleave, who goes by the nickname
Shell, was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastasized breast cancer.
The diagnosis was a shock to Cleave, her family and her neighbors. On a typical day, Coastsiders can spot her out on the ocean, surfing or stand-up paddleboarding. In 2018, she shut down her tech business and founded Sea Hugger, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the marine environment from plastic pollution. In response to the pandemic, Sea Hugger opened an outdoor kids camp to give families a break from distance learning. It provides children with a chance to learn about the ocean, marine life and conservation in a COVID-19 safe environment.
Kristen Hagen, who serves on the board of Sea Hugger, describes her time with the organization as educational and inspiring, with Cleave’s dedication at the center of it all.
“She’s been the lifeblood, the visionary, the excitement about the cause,” Hagen said. “... I think we can all be a big part of her experience, right now, by continuing to enrich her life in the way that she has enriched ours.”
When Cleave’s neighbor Margo Zarker learned of her diagnosis, she knew she wanted to do something special.
“I felt like we needed to do something as a neighborhood. Something that was a little more lasting than flowers,” Zarker said.
But showing support requires some creative chops during the pandemic, when gathering in person is often not an option. Then it dawned on Zarker: signs.
Enlisting two other neighbors on San Carlos Avenue, Zarker ordered a bunch of blank poster board signs and set up a workstation in her garage. Soon after, neighbors were calling Zarker to ask for their own sign to decorate. By the time Cleave returned to San Carlos Avenue later that day, 20 signs of encouragement dotted the block.
“It brought her to tears,” Zarker said.
Neighbors are still making signs for their friend, and, in response, Cleave has asked an artist friend to design a “Thank You” sign to go in her own front yard.
“My neighbors totally surprised me and put these signs all over the street just to let me know that they stand with me and that they’re fighting with me,” Cleave said. “... That is community. You know, that’s what you do for other people. And that’s just Half Moon Bay in a nutshell.
“I loved this community so much before my diagnosis, and now I have an even deeper love and appreciation for it,” Cleave said.