The Port Arthur News
Although Melissa Blanchard has aspired to become a minister since the first time she saw Billy Graham’s Saturday night sermon at age 8, she wasn’t naive — she knew the odds were stacked against her.
“Women were not that active in the ministry at that time,” Blanchard said. “But my grandmother said, ‘If anybody can do it, I think you can.’”
Indeed, on June 9, 2013, Blanchard became an ordained minister. Four months later, she founded Abundant Life Recovery Group, a program rooted in Scripture for people struggling with addiction, at Rock Church Southeast in Port Arthur.
“It’s not a secret that I’m a woman, so most times when I tell people I’m a pastor, that gets some weird looks,” Blanchard said.
But Blanchard doesn’t balk at sideways glances — or stacked odds, either. The first premature baby born at Mid-Jefferson Hospital in Nederland, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 6 months old. Doctors weren’t certain she would survive, and even if she did, her quality of life was dubious.
“But I’m not used to taking no for an answer,” Blanchard said. “I’m used to going against the grain.”
Blanchard has never walked a day in her life. She navigates her way around her Nederland apartment using an electric wheelchair, and performs everyday tasks with the help of an attendant who visits daily. Her small frame and close-cropped dark hair cast an illusion of someone much younger than her 45 years — an effect only exacerbated by her slow, deliberate speech patterns.
Even so, Blanchard has an energy about her that is practically tangible. Her dark eyes sparkle one minute as she discusses her plans for furthering Abundant Life, then blaze the next when the conversation turns to her past.
Blanchard endured sexual abuse as early as 3 years old. As a child, she was sent to an institution for children with disabilities like hers — not an uncommon practice in the late 1960s. Blanchard had never been in a public school setting until she enrolled at Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur.
Through the efforts of a teacher and a counselor, Blanchard was removed from the special education program and placed in college preparatory classes. After graduating from TJ, she obtained her bachelor’s degree in social work from Lamar University in Beaumont.
“I’m able bodied, and I whine every day about something,” said Claire Provost, who has worked as Blanchard’s attendant since July 2013. “She doesn’t do it. She’s been overcoming since toddler age.”
Blanchard’s existence is dependent on a number of social programs, most of which are income based. Long-term employment would mean losing medical insurance, Social Security and housing. Unable to utilize her degree in a professional capacity, Blanchard began thinking creatively.
“I think more people would be drawn to the church if we were able to really minister to the person as a whole instead of putting God in a box,” Blanchard said. “Just to be able to get to know a person and speak their language is something I find to be valuable in terms of ministry.”
Thus, Abundant Life was born. Blanchard wrote the entire program herself, and in October 2013, she asked longtime friend Debbie Simmons to be a co-facilitator. Simmons immediately agreed.
“When God laid this program on Melissa’s heart, she went at it with full force,” Simmons said. “With her coming in there in a wheelchair, it gives them something visual to look at. They see that their excuses can’t compare to what she’s up against.”
The two women share their stories of addiction and abuse with members of the support group every Thursday night at Rock Church Southeast, as well as with inmates at the LeBlanc Unit in Beaumont. Simmons talks about relying on alcohol to cope with a history of sexual abuse and the current problems created by her children’s drug addictions. She hasn’t had a drink in 17 years.
Blanchard never turned to alcohol or drugs. However, lacking the coping skills necessary to combat the scars left by a lifetime of abuse and alienation, she found a more accessible vice — sugar.
“Being disabled and growing up in the late '60s, I learned very quickly that I didn't have a voice,” Blanchard said. “And after the sexual abuse, my thought was, 'If I become grotesque, being that I'm already an odd duck, maybe this will stop.’”
Recently, Blanchard lost at least 60 pounds when she decided she no longer needed sugar to fight her demons. She held a “funeral” for all the food she could no longer eat, stuffing it into the trash can one by one, and embarked on a low-carbohydrate diet. She also took communion daily, and continues to do so.
“Having limited mobility, the spiritual aspect was very important to me,” Blanchard said. “The mind is very powerful.”
That is what Blanchard stresses to those who attend her recovery program — that changing their words and thoughts will facilitate significant changes on the exterior. The Bible is her primary teaching tool, but she does her best to apply it to everyday life rather than merely reciting the Scripture.
“It's got to be practical, or no one's going to want it,” Blanchard said. “If we can make the Bible practical and minister to the whole person rather than just the spiritual component, we can do amazing things in this world.”
Blanchard believes that one day Abundant Life will evolve into something far beyond its current scope, but she is patient. She feels she has been tasked with showing others that no matter how damaged your body may appear, you have autonomy over your spirit.
“People think that healing from the outside is what I want, but healing starts from the inside and has to flow outward,” Blanchard said. “I would not be opposed to walking, but I'm more concerned about emotional healing — not only mine, but everyone else's.”