When their mother died several years ago, these four siblings found strength and family in their friends and neighbors. They all start a new chapter this fall as USC students.
You can’t choose your family, or so the saying goes. The Shutes beg to differ.
The four teenagers — triplets Ireland, Kala and Smith and their older brother Cole — built their own family from the friends and neighbors around them. They had little choice.
Their mom, a single parent, had to work 80 hours a week to provide for them, so they supported each other. By age 7 or 8, they were getting ready on their own each morning and walked to school together. Then cancer robbed them of their mother two years ago.
The teenagers again found comfort in each other, and in their Southern California community of La Cañada Flintridge. Neighbors contributed thousands of dollars to help cover their daily expenses. When circumstances threatened to force the siblings to move away from the only place they’d ever known, a local family took them in, providing not just a roof over their head but also the warmth and understanding they needed to chart a new path forward.
So when it was time for them to head off to college, it made sense that they would stick together — and turn to a university known for its sense of family.
“We were raised on the notion that your friends and the people around you can be as close as family,” Smith said. “We get to keep that same mentality with the Trojan Family. We won’t have to deviate too much from what we know.”
A devoted single mom builds a special family
From the very start, the Shutes had a different understanding of family than the traditional definition. Their mother, Robin Shute, always wanted kids but discovered out she couldn’t conceive. So she found another way, using her sister’s donated eggs to carry and give birth to Cole, then the triplets a year and a half later. She separated from the children’s biological father not long after they were born.
To support her young family, Robin toiled tirelessly as a physician assistant at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, working alongside trauma surgeons in the busy emergency department. After long hours at the hospital every workday, she dedicated herself to her children. She attended school plays, gymnastics competitions and football games, often still dressed in her standard-issue blue scrubs.
“I feel like I got everything I could need and more from her,” Ireland said. “She taught us to be independent and hardworking.”
She was so devoted to taking care of others, she often disregarded her own needs, Smith said. “For me, she was the pinnacle of a human being,” he said. “She was so selfless and just wanted us to be happy.”
USC foursome learned self-reliance early in life
Life wasn’t always easy in those early years. The Shutes rarely had time or money for a family vacation. If the siblings wanted to play a sport, it was up to them to get to practice. They grew intimately familiar with the local bus schedule, using their school IDs to catch free rides around town.
They look back now with fondness at the moments they shared. Like the time they built a fort between the boys’ beds the first time they stayed home alone while Mom worked a night shift at the hospital. Or their Sunday treks to the donut shop, where Cole bought all the croissants and then ate only the soft centers, leaving the crispy shells for the girls to finish off.
Robin’s hard work eventually paid dividends, and they moved into a new house. The kids were doing well in school and had lots of friends. Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction.
Then two years ago, on the Fourth of July, Robin fell and hit her head. She had struggled with anemia for years, so the kids were used to her feeling dizzy and needing blood transfusions. But a few days went by and she remained in the hospital. Then a few more passed.
“This time, she was staying longer,” Cole said. “At first, I didn’t think too much of it, but as the days went on, I started to get worried. I knew something was definitely wrong.”
A sudden loss leaves young family reeling
When their relatives showed up unexpectedly, reality set in. Mom wasn’t coming home. Their extended family members gently let the siblings know that she had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. She had known for years but hid it from everyone.
“She kept it a secret to protect us,” Kala said.
Smith added: “She was annoyingly stubborn. But above all, she wanted us to live a normal life without worrying about her.”
In a few weeks, she was gone. The triplets were 15 and about to start their junior year at La Cañada High School. Cole would be a senior.
Community support brings hope to grateful teens
In the darkness of that moment, the tight bonds they had created in their community proved to be their salvation. An online fundraiser and other events collected $40,000 within days. A family friend opened her doors to all four siblings until they could figure out the next step.
“The outpouring of support was incredible,” Ireland said.
Even with all that help, it soon became apparent that staying in their hometown wasn’t a viable option. They would have to leave for Nevada to live with a relative. And it happened fast: They had three days to get ready for the move.
Cole remembers sitting in his room, feeling lost. Then his phone buzzed with a message from a number he didn’t recognize.
“Hey, you’re not going anywhere,” the text read.
It was from Joe and Christine Lee. Their son, Trevor, was a close friend of Smith’s and had known the triplets since elementary school. The couple had met the Shute kids at various gatherings, like the Lees’ big annual Super Bowl party.
As they saw the tragedy unfolding before them, the Lees felt they had to act.
“How do you rip away four kids with great grades, these good kids?” Joe Lee said. “How do you take their mother away and send them off to Reno to a completely different lifestyle? Our initial thought was that they need somewhere to live, and we were willing to fill that gap.”
Christine Lee elaborated: “We knew how much the kids did not want to leave La Cañada. They felt like the community was their family. That pushed us even more to do something for them.”
Siblings put down new roots in familiar soil
With that decision, the Lees doubled the size of their household. Their daughter Lauren had left home to study at USC, but adding four more people to their home was still a tight squeeze.
“They are great kids; they’ve melded really well with our family and everything is going well,” Joe Lee said. “We’ve created a new type of family we never thought we’d have. But it was the best solution for them to move in with us. That’s where the adoption came in.”
The Lees had established guardianship of the Shute siblings, but they wanted to make it official. Things moved quickly from there. Kala described trips to the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles to take care of paperwork, followed by tacos at Guisados.
It meant the foursome could breathe a sigh of relief, assured they would finish their high school years with their lifelong friends.
“It leaves you at a loss for words,” Cole said. “You don’t know what to say. Even now, I don’t know what to say. I do know I’d definitely take a bullet for any of the Lees and a lot of the friends I’ve grown up with.”
Merging with the Lee clan also meant they would be steeped in USC traditions and lore.
The Lees are big-time Trojan fans, and they soon had the Shutes onboard after tailgating on the University Park Campus and catching football games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“We saw the spirit and the Trojan Family dynamic,” Ireland said. “It totally hooked us.”
Trojan ties grow stronger as foursome forges ahead
Looking back, the siblings can point out numerous other connections to USC. Their mom studied at the university, earning her degree in physician assistant practice from the Keck School of Medicine of USC in 1997 before going to work at the LAC+USC Medical Center.
It’s also no big secret that the La Cañada High School football team is modeled on the Trojans, Kala said, complete with cardinal and gold jerseys (just ignore the fact that they claim Sparta). She got a firsthand taste of the spirit as a cheerleader for three years, and Ireland also joined the squad. Then as a senior, Kala suited up in a No. 5 jersey as a backup kicker for the football team, fulfilling a longtime dream.
It led to some poignant moments, like on senior night when parents walk the graduating players out to cheers from the crowd. Kala called on Ireland and Smith, and the trio stepped onto the field arm-in-arm.
“Everybody in the stands was like, ‘That is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen!’” Kala said.
When it came time to send in applications for college, the triplets made sure USC was at the top of the list. They had done well in school and participated in extracurricular activities, but they were realistic. Many other friends and classmates applied, and they figured the competition would be stiff.
“For LC kids, it’s like USC or die,” Kala said, using shorthand for La Cañada. “Everyone wants to go there.”
An admissions day scare ends in joy
On the day admissions letters were due to arrive, Kala’s heart pounded as she headed to the mailbox. Only two thick packets waited. They were addressed to the girls.
“It didn’t make any sense,” she said. “If anyone was going to get into USC, it would be Smith.”
On a hunch, she returned to the mailbox 30 minutes later. Another packet greeted her. She thinks the postal worker must have missed it or returned later because it didn’t fit.
A month later, Cole was accepted to USC as a transfer from Pasadena Community College.
The decision to enroll together was easy, especially with the added influence of the Lees.
“Joe may or may not have brainwashed us a little bit,” Smith said.
Joe Lee has been a Trojan fan since childhood, and he envisions earning his PhD at USC in the near future. And it also helped that Christine Lee works in the anesthesiology department at the Keck School of Medicine, ensuring the kids would receive tuition assistance.
Lauren studies business administration at the USC Marshall School of Business, where she is a senior this year. And Trevor hopes to transfer from Pasadena Community College after a year, following the same path as both Lauren and Cole.
“We didn’t coerce them,” Joe Lee insists. “We didn’t say, ‘You all have to apply to USC.’ We left it open, but USC was always a target.”
Family honors the past while looking forward
Their mother’s influence is apparent in the fields of study the Shutes are pursuing. Smith is majoring in human biology, on a pre-med track. Cole is also interested in becoming a doctor or a physician assistant like his mom, and he followed doctors at LAC+USC Medical Center for several days this summer to understand their work.
Ireland enrolled as a psychology major, wanting to help people and give back to society. Kala plans to take an array of classes as a freshman to find her passion.
Robin Shute continued her selflessness in death, donating her body to help train new doctors at the Keck School of Medicine. The siblings recently attended a ceremony to recognize and celebrate donors like their mom.
Before she passed away, Robin told her kids to follow a Shute family tradition and forgo the funeral. Instead, she said, they should don brightly colored clothes and gather for an uplifting celebration.
“She knew mourning was inevitable, but she didn’t want us to be sad,” Ireland said. “She wanted us to celebrate her life first.”
On their mom’s birthday last year, the Shutes came together with several dozen of their friends. They wrote notes to Robin and tied them to balloons.
“We drove up Angeles Crest Highway, about 30 of us, just blasting music,” Kala said. “We let off all these colorful balloons. That was such a cool thing.”
New chapter begins at USC for incoming students
Honoring that part of their past will always be a priority for the Shutes. But they are creating new traditions with their new family. They are learning more about their adoptive parents, who have Chinese and Japanese backgrounds, and they enjoyed a family vacation to China last year and relaxed in Hawaii before classes started this fall.
The Shutes are eager to start their college experience at USC. They plan to get together for meals regularly, and of course, they’ll be at all the Trojan football games. Their excitement and optimism are gratifying for the family that took them in during their time of need.
“We just wanted to turn a big negative into a big positive,” Joe Lee said. “We want them to enjoy life, to look back and be thankful for their mom and everything she did, and to be able to say, ‘Mom, everything worked out.’”
By Eric Lindberg