Melanie Renfrew-Hebert


Melanie Renfrew-Hebert is
Passionate About Life, Learning and Becoming Wh

While doing research for this book I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking with many wonderful, passionate people.  In that context I view myself as a reporter, telling life stories about people investing themselves in one thing or another that they are very passionate about.   This story is different.  It’s different because it’s a story about a person with no “one” particular passion – no single hobby, no single job or volunteer activity to define her passionate life by.  This is the story of Melanie Renfrew-Hebert, a woman who has come to understand living her passion in very different terms.  Melanie’s terms are survival, awareness and ultimately becoming whole.

When I interviewed Melanie for the first time I was struck by the accomplishments she has made in her life and by the amazing smile and positive attitude she brought to our conversation.  The following are Melanie’s own words which will describe her journey far better than I could.

“There was a gut-wrenching turning point in my life and before that point I was not passionate about anything.  Truth be told, there was no passion in me at all; there was no room for it. I was filled with loss, anger, resentment, mistrust, disgust at myself, and fear.  It was not until I lost my best friend, my father, and nearly lost my own life that I realized that life was not what happened to you while you were doing other things but rather what you make of it, direct it to be, every day.  I was tired of reacting to the world around me.  I felt I had no control, that everything was happening to me and there was nothing I could do about it. I had been living life like watching a concert: interested and amused but unengaged. Now, I wanted to be the conductor: directing specific focus at each section of my life as it suits me, bringing all of the pieces into harmony.

For the last 15 years or so I have focused my passion on various things, while always trying to maintain the harmony.  I will be honest; this is not easy and sometimes not attainable at all.  Despite best effort things fall through occasionally and you can only learn from the experience.  I have tried to redefine me.  I needed to change my own internal image to match the person I wanted to be.  This led me to make changes in my personal appearance, education and world-view, and relationships with others.”

Melanie goes on to describe the struggle she had “fitting in” as a morbidly obese woman in a world that doesn’t always welcome very overweight people.

“I have traveled a bumpy road to go from 450lbs to a ‘normal’ size, beginning with a gastric bypass and leading to multiple surgeries and pain.  But with the complications came some of the best feelings of my life.  Many people don’t understand that for morbidly obese individuals their whole day is consumed with the idea of ‘fitting in’, both socially and physically.  It is exhausting and depressing and reinforces the behaviors that caused the obesity.  It is a vicious self-destructive cycle.  I was desperate to break free and, once free, to never return.  This led me to Kempo karate. 

About four years ago I walked into the studio from off the street.  It was an impulse, a tugging if you will, that I could not ignore.  As I stood talking to the instructor all of those old signals that had keep me overweight for so many years started to scream “get out”, “you can never do this”.  I stood with one hand on the door for most of the conversation, torn between hearing more and my preprogrammed response to listen to those signals.  The choice was made for me when the instructor held out his hand to shake my own and, as my hand lifted from the door handle, I was hooked.   I am currently a first-brown belt (one step below black belt) despite many hurdles. 

My road to improve my education and world-view has taken a little longer to achieve than my goal to change my personal image but it is a journey that will end sooner.  For many years my father’s heart was broken by my desire to leave school in the 9th grade. I did not want to disappoint him but was unable to describe to him what a challenge school was to me on a day to day basis due to my size and an undiagnosed learning disability.  Now I knew I would do whatever was necessary to get a degree, if only for my father. 

I enrolled in school in September 2006; a world as unfamiliar to me as the one Alice faced when she stepped through the looking glass.  Initially I failed.  I was unprepared and felt alone.  Eventually, I began to gain strength from my successes.  I was good at this.  I kept going through illness, divorce, death, cancer treatments, etc.  It became the one constant in my life and I treasured it.  Today I hold an AS in Business, an AS in Accounting, a BS in Management, a MBA, a MS in Community Economic Development, a MA in Policy and Development, and have completed all of my coursework for my doctorate in Community Economic Development.  I am proud to say that shortly I will have gone from GED to Ph.D. 

With my education my social sphere increased and I made new friends and had to start reassessing my relationships.  I will be very honest: full time school and full time work leads to very little time for others and socializing.  After a divorce and the end of a long-term relationship due to abuse, I was not happy with this portion of my life and set about to change it.  I had traditionally dated men, mostly for my dream of having a child but cancer and a hysterectomy ended that dream.  I had to really reassess what I was looking for in another person and discovered that the most important traits to me were intelligence, friendship, sense of humor, and a love of family. When I met Diane I was smitten.  We have been married for almost three years.

I have been practicing something known as Constant and Never Ending Improvement (CNEI) for 15 years (though I did not know it most of the time!).” 

I asked Melanie if she could describe some benefits others might take away from her story.  “I hope that it has value to my family because I will be here longer to share with them. And as an inspiration to them to put their own lives together into the shape they want.  Also, I know that the work I will do in Community Economic Development will impact others around the world.”

I asked her if she could comment on the various alternatives and options she explored along the way.  I asked her if she could tell me what kept her on course and moving forward in the face of such odds.  “Every step along the way there were opportunities to fail: difficulties at school could have led to leaving, the trauma with my surgeries could have pushed me back into a sedentary life, and my relationships could cause me constant self-doubt.  I actively had to choose to maintain my path every step of the way. This has made the journey all the more rewarding.”

While Melanie’s story is certainly unique and in many ways sad, it offers real life lessons.   It’s a story of her personal struggle and pain followed by a new awareness of her authentic self and a realization that she had options in life.  Melanie is surely an amazing woman, but more than that Melanie is a great role model.  She is a role model for each of us to follow when we find ourselves traveling down “Victim Lane.”  Melanie made the conscious decision to chart her own course - she planned her journey and didn’t let “Life Happen” to her anymore.  I am pleased to call Melanie Renfrew-Hebert my friend.