27 May 2014

Kinshasa Guru: Mel Schellenberg

In 2010, right after Loulou was born, I began to have swelling in my left knee.  The pain and stiffness spread to other joints and I was eventually diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  


I started on a bunch of fancy medications and got better, but when I arrived in Kinshasa three years ago, I still struggled to get out of a car and definitely couldn't sit criss-cross-applesauce on the floor with my kids.  I felt lucky that the meds were working and that my rheumatologist didn't freak when I said I was moving to the Congo, but I was resigned to a new kind of life.

I first met Mel Schellenberg after about six months of watching Sarah and others go religiously to her kickboxing classes.  Their dedication was almost ridiculous.  They asked me to come along.  I laughed and gently reminded them of my little chronic disease issue.  How insensitive of them.  But, eventually, I relented.  I tried to whine about my "condition" to Mel.  She assured me that as long as I listened to my body, there was absolutely no reason why I couldn't do serious exercise.  I did a lot of modified moves that first year, and slowly realized that a lot of my body issues traced back to inactivity, not disease.  My doctor agreed when I saw him that first summer after several weeks of regular exercise.

After years of Mel-induced sweat-fests, Sarah and I wanted to recognize her for everything she has done and meant to us.  I'm off several medications and have nicer joint action than ever before. I'm stronger, happier and less anxious.  I can honestly tell my students that their school-nurse-and- incessant- lecturer-of-all-things-health-and-fitness works out exactly like she should.  I've always sort of lied before. I also don't look like a fool when throwing an air punch anymore and I value that.  

I believe in my body again.  Mel insisted that I step it up, stop feeling sorry for myself and explore my personal limits and I'm eternally grateful.

I can continue on, but really, nothing except for the many words of those who know her would suffice to explain the impact Mel has had on our whole community. We actually had to cut parts of people's responses, they were so enthusiastic. When's the last time you emailed a large group of people and every single person wrote back instantly? That happened this week. People truly love Mel.  It's obviously not just me.  

Jill L.: 
I love dance and sports and have worked out all of my life - until I was in a car accident and injured my neck and shoulder. After the accident, I re-injured my neck every time I tried to start working out. This went on for about 4 years and I had pretty much given up on being fit. When I met Mel, I was really afraid that the same thing would happen again during exercise (because she is super hard-core!) and I would wind up with months of severe pain. Mel assured me that she would help me learn alternative exercises and movements that wouldn't aggravate my injuries. In those first crucial weeks, I was amazed how she kept in contact with me almost every day and really coaxed me along. I've found that she is hard-core, but she's also sensitive to each person's situation and wants the best for her clients. While I wouldn't yet call myself fit, I've been working out with her for 4 months with no injury. I'm very encouraged to be back on the road to fitness! 

While brutal, painful, and often demoralizing, Mel's training sessions are the highlight of my week. I have the privilege of being pushed to exhaustion and extreme fatigue by Mel four times a week. I must be a glutton for punishment, because she pushes me to lengths I have never tested myself before. Her workout sessions are more than exercise. Her work is therapeutic, and helps me work through personal and life challenges. Mel is motivator, life coach, and drill sergeant wrapped up into one tiny, dynamic package! I could not imagine life in the Congo without Mel Schellenberg.

Mel’s classes make me want to die, but I still can't wait to return every time for more! She is a powerhouse of motivation and energy. I am the most fit I have ever been in my life. Mel provides a fun and challenging workout that keeps me at my personal best.  


Without fail on the day I have personal training with Mel, I start to think of excuses to get out of it, but I am so glad that I can never think of a good enough excuse.  I feel amazing, my clothes fit better and I truly feel stronger and healthier.  I have even managed to reduce my medication for hypertension!

Mel personalizes everything she does.  She changes plans on the fly, based on how I'm feeling and how things are going.  She's very responsive and quick to find what works best.  She is encouraging, but holds me to a high standard and makes me work really hard.  She does an amazing job blending what's fun, what's tough, what's challenging, and what I'm getting the hang of.  I had never, for a moment, thought of working with a personal trainer, and now I wonder why I waited so long to start working with Mel!

Sarah S.
It's no exaggeration when I say that Mel changed my life. [Insert awkward tearing-up here.] Three years ago when I started taking her classes, I had just had my second baby and pretty much thought, what most women think after pregnancy, that my body would never be the same. But I'm in better shape now than I've ever been. And that feeling goes a long way living in Kinshasa. Mel is quite possibly the nicest, least judgmental, most motivational person I've ever met. Sometimes women feel pulled in so many directions, and especially guilty about what we're missing at home while we exercise. But during a recent workout, as we're all covered in sweat and near exhaustion, Mel said, "Nobody else needs you right now. This is exactly where you need to be." I can't think of a better way to sum up how I feel about Mel's workouts.  


I love working with Mel because of how human she is. In my experience with personal trainers, it seems that their “buffness/healthy” is unattainable; they never eat junk food, or bake cookies with their kids, or have a drink with their friends because they’re too busy maintaining a bodacious bod that everyone stares at and says, “That can never be me.” But with Mel, she never judges when you engage in a drink or two, or confess that you may have had a little “junk food splurge”. In fact, she admits she has them too…with two children and a husband it’s hard not to enjoy a treat every once in a while. And her attitude encourages me because even though I splurge more than I ought to, Mel still pushes me to know that I can still attain the body that I want when I am ready to make that commitment…and I don’t completely have to give up all of my tasty treats!

Mel and her kiddos. 

Sara M
Working with Mel in personal training and group sessions has truly made my life better.  Not only do I see a difference, but I feel a difference in my attitude and outlook on life.  I have more energy and am happier in general because I am working out regularly. Mel is incredibly patient and supportive, but also pushes me to my limits in the best way possible. I never would have imagined several months ago that I would be able to do some of the things I am able to do now with relative ease like regular push-ups, weighted squats, and much more. 

Can I just submit a picture of my abs? 

Photo credit to Emmanuel & Micah Schellenberg.

Note to Self:  Work on face when taking "jumping photos".

See?  Effortless.  

If you would like to get buff and happy, call Mel.  She'll transform you in more ways than one.



  1. I need to add my two cents about Mel because I'm apparently the one person who didn't reply to that email on time!
    I fell upon Mel after I had my second baby and she transformed my body. I was slimmer, stronger and more healthy than I had ever been in my life. Less than a year later, I had baby number three (3 kids in 3.5 years) and I didn't sweat a single brownie, Quarter Pounder or sour cream doughnut because I knew Mel would kick my behind back into shape post baby. About five months after bubba #3 came, my milk production dropped dramatically and I couldn't figure out what to do: cut back on the work outs, take supplements, or stop working out all together. Mel spent hours exploring the current research on breast milk and exercise and supported me through my decision making process. She's not only the one who kicks my butt but she's also an amazing listener and great friend. And she NEVER makes me feel guilty when I talk about the six chocolate chip cookies I had on the way to see her; after all, she's a busy working mom too who loves a good cookie on the fly.
    Jessica H

  2. Jess - I love this. And, I purposefully didn't call you out in the post. =) Mel does always seem to be willing to go that extra step - the woman is researching something for all of us, I think! I didn't appreciate the profession for what it truly could be before meeting her.

  3. will she move to San Francisco? I have been looking for a cardio-ish exercise that I can be excited and stayed inspired with like Pilates (which is unfortunately not as cardio). I've tried many things but they do hurt my joints (have lupus), or give me shin splints, or they're just boring... perhaps you can convince her to move shop stateside (SF!!!) since you'll be leaving. Heh.

  4. I'm feeling inspired from all the way over here in NYC. My own workouts have suffered thanks to a broken ankle, hypothyroidism and some sort of autoimmune issue that hasn't been figured out. I try to exercise on my own but get discouraged by my aching joints and lack of stamina. But this post is making me want to try again with hope of getting past the initial rust. Thank you!

  5. Hello
    I will be at TASOK in August. I wonder if Mel works with men too? Is she at the school or in the city? How do I start with her workouts right away? :)

    1. Mel works with everyone! She mostly works from TASOK. Shoot her an email at the above address. We're jealous!

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