Health

Bouncing back

Rebecca Parton started a fitness class to fight chronic pain. Now, she's helping other women rebound, too

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Gradually, the class became an hour long, and they were all toning up, losing inches, having fun and, best of all, becoming pain-free. Word spread and the class grew, bringing out women who had never exercised. To them, Becky offered rides, checkup calls and her personal story. Over the next six months her own weight dropped to a healthy 149 pounds, and her back improved so much that she was able to lift Turner without pain, continue her physically demanding job and get back to the business of building her new blended family.

Today, Becky radiates health. As an educational assistant at Fort Erie Secondary School (her alma mater) she’s in constant motion as she works with teenagers who have a wide variety of disabilities—cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, seizure disorders, brain injuries. Some can carry on conversations and use computers; others have the needs of infants. She spends most of her lunch hour spoon-feeding Tessa, a lovely girl in a wheelchair who smiles winningly through every puréed mouthful. Becky brings doubles of items in her own bag lunch—two oranges, two yogurts—to share with anyone who asks. It’s clear all the kids adore her.

“With her degree, Becky could pursue a much higher-paying job, but she’s chosen this,” says vice-principal Mitzi Klassen. But Becky says she’d take job satisfaction over money any day. She often invites students home for dinner, takes them shopping and goes to their birthday parties: “They’re my second family.”

After school, Becky heads home to make dinner for her first family. When it comes to nutrition she has high ideals, but like most working moms, she has to make modifications. She extols the benefits of organic cooking, but tonight’s spaghetti will be topped with store-bought tomato sauce. She tries to avoid white sugar but can’t resist whipping up a batch of colourful snowman cookies—Turner’s favourite—from a package of frozen dough. When she drops a container of meatballs that go skittering across the kitchen floor, she chases them down to toss back into the pot. “Ten-second rule!” she shouts. “If they’re on the floor less than 10 seconds, they’re still edible.”

While the house is immaculate today, Becky admits that’s not always the case. In fact, when 15-year-old Amanda comes home from school and surveys the unfamiliar tidiness she says candidly, “Whoa. I’m not used to seeing things like this.” Asked what she thought when she learned that her mother had won Chatelaine’s Soul Models contest, Amanda gives her mom a spontaneous hug. “I was surprised but I e wasn’t. Mom’s the perfect candidate. She can put up with so much and do so much for other people.”

Twelve-year-old Molly comes home, report card in hand. “I got one C in math,” she says.

Becky scans the report card, then says, “But look at all the As!” Out of Molly’s earshot, she says, “So, she got a C. Big deal. That stuff—a bad mark, a messy room, a bad day—doesn’t matter to me now.” Becky learned that lesson from her own soul model—her late niece. Even while she was very ill, Katie raised thousands of dollars for cancer research by cycling 10 kilometres in the Terry Fox Run and climbing the stairs of the Skylon Tower in Niagara Falls, Ont.

Before she died, she asked her Aunt Becky and a few friends to join her in getting tattoos. When Becky and the others expressed squeamishness about the blood and the pain, Katie said, “Try having a bone marrow test through your spine. Suck it up!” With tiny purple hearts freshly tattooed on their hips, they all went to a club and danced half the evening. Today, in Katie’s memory, Becky continues to organize groups to participate in various cancer fundraisers.

When husband Chris comes home from work, bringing boisterous Turner from day care, he takes a minute to explain why he nominated his wife for this contest. “She makes a point of doing something special for almost every individual. She shows a care and concern and a love of life that just make you a happier person.” He adds, “Boy, it was tough those first few years. But I know that if we survived that, we can survive anything.”

Meanwhile, Becky heads off to fitness class, where the formerly unfit members all exhibit a strength and flexibility that not long ago would have been unthinkable.

“The doctor who told me I’d never do an exercise class again would flip if he could see me now,” says Donna Martin, who started attending Becky’s classes after undergoing back surgery. “It’s all because of Becky.”

Becky is almost embarrassed by the praise. “I’m not particularly special,” she says. “There are so many women like me—not CEOs, not founders of big companies, just women in the trenches trying to do their best for their families and communities. I’m just one of that army of women who wear 100 different hats every day.”

And with that, she gets back to the task of helping spines—or, as some might put it, building backbone.