Two woman with their arms around each other standing outside a store

Like mother, like daughter

Melody Sussman has inspired the core values and teaching philosophy of her daughter, Associate Teaching Professor of Rehabilitation and Human Services Melisa Littleton. During their monthly shopping trips together, they buy items for Penn State Wilkes-Barre students and the food pantry at the campus.
By: Goldie Van Horn
RHS professor’s teaching approach is inspired by her mother’s care for others

In many ways, Melody Sussman has inspired the core values and teaching philosophy of her daughter, Associate Teaching Professor of Rehabilitation and Human Services Melisa Littleton.

“She is the most caring person I know,” Littleton said of her mother. “When I was growing up, things weren’t easy. We struggled financially, but my mom always found a way to make sure other people were taken care of. She was always very kind, generous and nurturing. Because she modeled that for me, I developed that in my beliefs myself. I wanted to give back and help people as part of my career.”

Littleton, who serves as the program coordinator for rehabilitation and human services (RHS) at Penn State Wilkes-Barre, decided to go into the human services field due to her mother’s influence. Prior to joining the campus faculty, Littleton, who is a licensed professional counselor, worked for the Children’s Service Center, most recently supervising a school-based behavioral health program. She came to Penn State Wilkes‑Barre in 2014 with the start of the RHS program.

“Without my mom’s support and encouragement, I wouldn’t be at Penn State Wilkes‑Barre,” Littleton said. “She helped me through undergraduate and graduate school. When I left for college, she supported me any way she could. She just wanted me to be happy. She was willing to sacrifice anything to make sure we were happy and successful.”

Sussman said it was important to her to demonstrate love to her daughter and her son.

“Both of my kids have gone through college. We didn’t have much money and we know struggles,” she said. “I love my children. They are the greatest gift I have ever had. I know that I gave them love. And if you have love, you have it made.”

Monthly shopping trips

The pair have a close relationship, although they live about an hour apart. They talk frequently and meet up for monthly shopping trips, where they buy items for Penn State Wilkes‑Barre students and the food pantry at the campus.

Their purchases include personal hygiene items such as shampoo, deodorant and toothbrushes, as well as snacks and special treats that Littleton uses to create treat bags for holidays.

“We have fun shopping and doing things for the students,” Sussman said. “But more importantly, we are trying to help them stretch the money they have in their pockets. I’m not rich but I know I can do this to help. Melisa loves her students and this is one way she shows it.”

Littleton said, “It might not be a lot, but it’s something. My mom was a big influence in my becoming a therapist and my approach to teaching now. That includes checking in with the students and bringing them snacks like fresh fruit and muffins every day. I want to help meet their needs so they can thrive.”

Fundraising event for Penn State Wilkes‑Barre

After Sussman became an empty nester, she decided to parlay her interest in antiques into launching her own business. She opened her antiques and collectibles store, Melben’s Murkantile, in Nicholson in 2005. The store is named after her children, Melisa and Benjamin, and sells a mix of new and used items.

Leading up to Christmas last year, Sussman decided to share her passion for helping college students to allow her customers to have an opportunity to help as well. She advertised a day when 10 percent of the store’s proceeds would be donated toward items for the Penn State Wilkes‑Barre food pantry and had a good number of customers come in to make purchases that day. Previously, she had done fundraisers for other local organizations, including a veterans’ organization and a Girl Scout camp.

“This event had a very positive response and a good turnout,” she said. “People came in to shop because they knew that was the day. They had seen it on Facebook or in the paper.”

With the proceeds from the day, Sussman was able to purchase a large supply of health and beauty items—naturally, on one of her monthly shopping trips with Littleton.

“This is just how my mom is. It shows her giving nature,” Littleton said. “When I was a child and adolescent therapist, she and I would shop together to purchase items for the kids. She’s been doing this with me for almost 20 years. The lessons I’ve learned from her have shaped the way I approach my students and being a kind and caring person with them.”

Sussman said, “To do something like this makes me feel so good. It warms your heart. Whenever friends or family helped my kids or did something for them, I appreciated it. We are all in this together. Melisa is very dedicated to her students and I’m so grateful for her.”

Influence on RHS program

Because of Penn State Wilkes‑Barre’s smaller size, Littleton gets to know her students well throughout their time in the RHS program. And the close-knit nature of the campus means she is able to build relationships with her students as she works with them.

“I see students from 100-level classes—sometimes even before that, when I meet them in the summer—until I shake their hands at graduation,” Littleton said. “I get to see them develop into their young professional selves and see what they get excited about in our field.”

She described her students as “compassionate and passionate,” saying, “They want to make the world a better place, whatever that looks like for them. They just want to help people and leave things a little better than how they found them.”

Her mother’s influence has shaped Littleton’s teaching philosophy and the way she handles interactions with her students. She strives to make her classroom and office comfortable places for students to learn and grow. Considering her work in human services and the courses she offers, Littleton is very understanding of disability culture and provides additional support to any student who needs extra care to help them get through their day. Her students know they can always stop by her office to talk with her.

“I always think of my mom’s influence in being that person who is kind and caring and being a safe person for those who might not have someone in that capacity,” Littleton said. “She would do anything for anyone who’s in need. That’s how I approach my teaching and building relationships with my students.”

“I love her more than anything,” she said. “She’s the best mom I could ever ask for. She has been my biggest supporter, advocate and protector, and she’s the reason I get to do what I do. She sacrificed so my brother and I would have every opportunity we needed to succeed.”