Heart & Soul: HALO’s Rebecca Welsh

Featured Sliders / Health & Fitness / Lifestyle / Stories / January 12, 2016

rebecca welsh

Rebecca Welsh had a hole in her heart.

Probably since birth, or that’s what the doctors told her after they found it earlier this year. In February, she suffered a stroke, followed by open heart surgery. Her journey of recovery, according to her family, is nothing short of a miracle.

Married and the mother of three young children—two sons, Klaebel, 4, and Chedon, 3, and her 1-year-old daughter, Evietta—Welsh, 36, is the founder and executive director of HALO (Helping Art Liberate Orphans), a global organization that provides housing, healing and education to youth in the most desperate situations throughout the world.

The picture of health, she’s fit, focused and driven. She studied martial arts for 12 years and at age 20 become the 2000 world champion in Taekwondo in women aged 17-29.

“My mom found a report that I wrote in second grade and I said I wanted to do karate,” Welsh said. “I didn’t start until I was around 14 years old after I had seen the movie ‘The Karate Kid.’ I was often dismissed but I continued to pursue it.”

“Looking back I see how much I needed the structure and discipline that martial arts gave me and how it helped me with everything else I did in my life. It gave me a lot of leadership skills that have helped me in my work with HALO.”

The middle child of five siblings, her family moved around a lot because of her dad’s, Joe Neuenswander, jobs. When Welsh was in 10th grade, they settled in Jefferson City, where today he works as a strategic buyer for ABB. Her mother, Joyce, is an accounting assistant at Abbott & Angerer and a volunteer branch director at HALO’s Jefferson City center, which serves more than 300 youths.

neuenswander family

The Neuenswander family, from left: Curtis, Natalie Abbott, John, Joe, Joyce, Vera Schmitz and Rebecca Welsh.
Photo submitted by Vera Schmitz

“I could tell Rebecca that she couldn’t do something and she was just going to do it, she was so determined and had an independent mind,” Joe said. “She’s also one of those people who takes advantage of timing very well. She’s at the right place at the right time, which isn’t something that falls in your lap. You need to be prepared.”

Joe, a 1973 All-American gymnast at Michigan State, definitely believed in  the benefits of sports and athletics.

“We were never hovering parents and we never pushed our kids to do things but let them find out what they were interested in,” said Joyce, a stay-at-home mom for 17 years who was always there for her children.

Both of Welsh’s brothers were quarterbacks on the football team at Jefferson City High School and her younger sister, Vera, excelled in pole vaulting and became an All-American at Indiana University.

rebecca welsh

Rebecca and Vera Neuenswander, aged 19 and 11, at sister Natalie’s graduation from the University of Missouri Columbia. Photo submitted by Vera Schmitz.

“I grew up watching Rebecca train relentlessly,” said Vera Schmitz. “I would come home from gymnastics practice and tell Rebecca that I wanted to be better—that I wanted to be the best. She was so flexible from doing karate and she would write me a list of exercises and stretching routines that I needed to do every morning.”

Schmitz now lives in Bloomington, Indiana, training for the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon in July. Still, the sisters speak every week and Welsh continues to offer advice and support.

“She’s arguably my biggest mentor in my training,” Schmitz said. “We talk once a week on the telephone and she kicks my butt. She’s like a freight train. If she wasn’t my sister, I would still be eager to surround myself with someone like her.”

As driven as she was, there were some signs that something might be amiss, but no one in her family would have ever suspected how serious it would become. Someone like her, with so much going for her, couldn’t be sick.

“I’ve always been healthy and worked out but growing up I sometimes had trouble breathing and doctors would give me inhalers and diagnose me with exercise-induced asthma,” she said.

“A couple of times I passed out while working out and I was always 100 percent drained by the end of the day. As I grew older I also remember falling asleep in the middle of the day in the middle of the room, for no apparent reason.”

She knows now that one side of her heart was getting bigger, but back then she just kept going. She had goals to accomplish, a life to lead and potential just oozing out of her.

After graduating from the University of Missouri in Columbia with a degree in communications, she moved to Chicago. She had been spending summers there doing modeling work and planned to continue it full time and to pursue acting, but then she met someone who was working with orphans in Haiti.

“I realized fairly quickly that modeling was not what I wanted to do with my life and I started sending out letters to as many orphanages as possible,” she said.

Welsh ended up spending six months on the Mercy Ship, a boat that travels to developing countries and provides medical care. When she was 21, she also visited Honduras and witnessed first-hand the extreme poverty. She returned to Kansas City and opened a karate school with another partner but still thought about the children and people she encountered in South America. Her students, who had heard her stories about the children there, held a fundraiser and raised $5,000 for an orphanage in Mexico. Their second fundraiser raised $40,000 and HALO was born.

While volunteering for HALO, she landed the lead role in the film “Fight Night,” also known as “Rigged,” shot in both Los Angeles and Lawrence, Kansas and released in the United States in 2009. She played Katherine Parker, a boxer who fought and beat many male competitors, something she had done in real life doing karate.

Welsh won the part of the lead character in “Fight Night” because the director said she could really pack a punch. Photo by Morgan Miller.

Welsh won the part of the lead character in “Fight Night” because the director said she could really pack a punch. Photo by Morgan Miller.

“I really had a decision to make,” she said. “While I loved acting and it was challenging I realized that my sense of purpose and my heart was with HALO.”

She began working full time for HALO and taking a salary. During this time, she met her husband, Eddie Welsh, and they married in 2008. She met him when he worked for Children International and oversaw construction in 11 countries after three years in the Peace Corps.

They started their family while living in Kansas City but two years ago they moved back to Jefferson City to be closer to her parents and siblings. Her husband is currently the COO of Jefferson Asphalt, and is always front and center at the annual HALO fundraisers in Jefferson City and Kansas City, where art made by children from all countries is auctioned off.

Welsh family

The Welsh family—Eddie, Rebecca, Klaebel, Chedon and Evietta. Photo by Claire Mengwasser.

Welsh clearly has a cause and a fulfilled life. Both she and the nonprofit have received national media attention. She was featured in People Magazine, on The Today Show, CBS Evening News and was the 2013 Woman of Achievement for ZONTA.

None of that made a difference, though, when she experienced a life-threatening health scare that set off a life-changing series of events. It was a typical evening—she had just fed her then 4-month-old daughter and put her in her swing in the living room.

“All of a sudden I felt like I was going to faint,” she said. “Typically I would sit down and then maybe lay down for a while. I’ve had migraines with aura, where you see spots and I figured that was what it was.”

The symptoms worsened and she called her brother to come over just in case she needed to head to the ER. While he was there, it happened.

“It felt like someone took a pin and drew a line down my tongue and then whoosh, my right side went numb,” she said. “My brother thought I’d had a stroke, so Eddie and I got in the car and drove to St. Mary’s.’

In the ER, she asked for Dr. Reginald “Reg” Schleider, who had seen her daughter when she had a serious respiratory infection.

“He came over and I smiled. He noticed one side of my face was droopy.  He shut the door and gave me several options, one was a clot buster that could reverse some of the stroke damage, but it had some risky side affects, too,” she said.

With a stroke, even seconds matter. Faced with a major decision, she and her husband turned to their faith and each other.

“My husband and I just looked at each other and asked everyone to leave the room. We prayed. The reality though was I couldn’t lift my arm or my leg and I didn’t want to live like that, I wanted to hold my children.  So we called the doctor back in,” she said.

rebecca welsh

She had the shot and then went by ambulance to the ICU at University Hospital in Columbia. Slowly, Welsh regained some control of her face and hand. Around 2 a.m. it was ultimately confirmed that she did suffer a stroke.

“I had lost control of the right side of my body and I couldn’t walk because my balance was so messed up. I was only able to stay awake for a couple hours of time because my brain was trying to heal,” she said. “I was like a newborn with a newborn. Etta and I would nap together, and now when she tried to pick something up and couldn’t, I totally understood her frustration. Her brain, like mine, couldn’t make those connections.”

During this time, Schmitz, who had hip surgery and was on a break from her very demanding training schedule, came to Jefferson City to help out as Eddie slept at the hospital.

Even though the source of her stroke was still unknown, Welsh eventually went to Capital Region Medical Center for inpatient therapy four to five hours a day. Her brother-in-law, who worked with the cardiology department at the University of Kansas Medical Center, urged her to send her files there.

“He’s a big believer in second opinions and the doctors there wanted to see me so I went and they performed a TEE test. They put a camera down your throat that takes pictures of your heart.”

That evening, Welsh attended the HALO fundraiser in Kansas City in a wheelchair. Soon after, she learned she had a congenital heart defect, specifically an atrial septal defect, a two-inch hole in her heart. She would need open heart surgery.

“I was excited and relieved because they found the source of my stroke and knew how to fix it, but my husband was concerned because once you’ve had one the risk goes up for another one, especially during open heart surgery,” she said.

“The night before my surgery I remember standing in my children’s bedroom and praying that I would be back in that room,” she said.

The entire family dropped what they were doing to rally around her during the entire process, which began with the surgery in April.

“Everything went exactly right for her to be as healthy as she is,” Schmitz said. If she hadn’t had the stroke then she wouldn’t have known about the hole in her heart and she could have dropped dead at 45,” she said.

rebecca welsh

When you see her now, you wouldn’t believe her medical history. She’s still beautiful and fit and driven, bringing her usual determination to her ongoing rehab and healing. She plays the piano every day and still works out and continues her job commitments.

In October, she stood with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Gwyneth Paltrow to receive an award at Variety Magazine’s 9th annual “Power of Women” event in Los Angeles.

“Everyone keeps telling me to scale back and slow down… but that’s almost impossible because I’m even more motivated and want to make the most of time with my family and HALO,” she said.

Her exterior has changed a bit with the scar on her chest, but it’s her inner self that’s even more dramatically reordered.

“I realize more than ever that we’re here to serve God and others. That what you take with you is what you give, we’re not taking a trailer full of stuff with us.”

Catch phrases like “don’t sweat the small stuff,” are now packed with much more meaning, and her priorities are razor sharp.

“I have streamlined my life more. With only so much energy to use each day I focus on only the most important things and don’t worry about the things that overall don’t matter,” she said.

Her appreciation for her family is overwhelming, and the experience has also brought her and Eddie closer together.

“He’s my super hero and my rock,” she said. “During Thanksgiving we looked at each other and our kids, just so thankful to be together and we cried through most of the meal. Every moment with the babies, smelling their skin my heart just swells with love for them, even if they throw a massive tantrum I’m so grateful.”

“When you go through a trial like this it stretches you and you feel everything more deeply; my sad is so much sadder and my happy much happier. I have never felt so alive.”

rebecca welsh

by Shelley Gabert | Photography by Leah Beane

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