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Teen becoming local hero for health efforts

By Kathy Chaffin

Salisbury Post

ANDOVER, Ohio — A one-hour documentary airing on the Discovery Health Channel Wednesday night will chronicle Robert “R.J.” Woodbury’s battle to lose weight.

For subscribers to Time Warner Cable, Discovery Health is on Channel 95. The program will be on at 10 p.m.

R.J. checked into the Andover Village Retirement Community on Sept. 26, 2005, where he is participating in a long-term, residential weight-loss program. He weighed 956 pounds upon admission and as of his last weigh-in at the end of December, had lost 238 pounds.

Now at 718 pounds, R.J. says he’s a little nervous about the documentary. “I guess I’m just worried about how people are going to look at me,” he says.

Though he hasn’t seen the final cut, R.J. says he viewed an earlier version. His favorite part is footage of when his mother and one of his close friends came to visit him.

“That was a big surprise,” he says. “I knew he was coming, but I didn’t realize that she was coming. I actually thought she was at home.”

The hardest part for R.J. to watch was when he cried. The tears came when producer Jen Stocks asked about how people treat him and look at him when he goes out in public.

“It’s all me,” he says of his answers. “It’s me telling the truth. I want people to see me for who I really am.”

R.J., now 25, says he’s also a little uncomfortable about people seeing his legs without bandages. Because he suffers from lymphedema, his legs are abnormally swollen and when infected, can ooze lymphatic fluid.

His mother, Connie Woodbury, says she was also nervous about being filmed for the documentary. She was willing to do it, however, because she believes R.J.’s story has the potential to help others.

One woman told her that reading the Post articles about R.J.’s struggle with obesity had inspired her to go on a diet program. “And she lost like 100 and some pounds,” Connie says. “I told R.J., ‘We think we’re the only ones going through it, but someone else is going through it, too.’

“He told me, ‘Mom, the only reason I’m doing this is for it to help someone else.’ ”

Connie says it’s not just overweight people who will benefit from R.J.’s story.

“This is going to help a whole lot of people with all different kinds of problems,” she says. “We’re just hoping for the best, not just for Robert, but for other people. I think it’s got a lot to do with loving yourself, no matter what your size.”

Stocks and Bill Hayes filmed the documentary for their “Super Obese” program. A woman who lost weight in the Andover Village program and subsequently underwent surgery to remove the resulting excess skin will also be featured.

It was from a previous “Super Obese” program, which also aired on the Discovery Health Channel, that R.J. and his family found out about the weight loss program.

Connie Woodbury’s brother, Calvin Roebuck, who lives in Maryland, saw the program, thought about R.J. and called their brother, Tim, who is also in Maryland. It was Tim who called Connie, who then called R.J., and soon the whole family was watching it.

The program tracked the weight loss of Robin Moran, who also has lymphedema in her legs. She was admitted to the Andover weight loss program weighing 766 pounds and lost 345 pounds in 15 months.

The Andover Village Retirement Community is one of the few weight-loss programs for the severely obese to accept Medicaid and Medicare patients like R.J. Once he was accepted into the program, R.J. and his family were faced with the challenge of how to get him there.

R.J.’s legs had swollen so much that he couldn’t fit into his mother’s Ford Contour. He even had difficulty riding in a regular-sized van and couldn’t afford the cost of renting a van large enough to elevate his legs during the nine-hour trip.

That’s where Karen Stephenson, the community manager for Yadkin House Apartments, came in. She worked with R.J. as the case manager for his Salisbury Housing Authority apartment on East Monroe Street and sent the Post an e-mail pleading for help finding him a ride.

The response from the community was overwhelming. Not only were there multiple offers to help R.J. get to Ohio, but many donated to a Robert Woodbury Special Needs Fund set up at F&M Bank.

Stephenson, who is also in the documentary, says she is still amazed by the number of people who reached out to R.J. “People sent money, cards, letters,” she says. “Some just said, ‘I can’t give anything, but please know I’m praying for him.’

“People that I run into from time to time will ask me how he’s doing.”

Being interviewed for the documentary was an unusual experience, she says, “but I think we muddled through OK. They asked me how I became involved with his situation, and they asked me a lot of questions about him as a person, his drive, his ambition and how he responded to the help that was offered.”

A year and four months into the program, R.J. continues to receive support from the people of Salisbury and Rowan County.

After he was quoted in a Sept. 24, 2006 Post article as saying he couldn’t find enough James Patterson novels to read, he says he received 22 in the mail. Julie Pinkston, who was his teacher at North Rowan High School, sends him a new book every month.

R.J. also receives cards and e-mails from encouraging friends, family, his fellow church members at Refreshing Springs Christian Ministry, other churches in the community and people he has never met on a regular basis.

“I have a lot of people that ask me or my mother if there’s anything I need,” he says. “But like I tell everybody, I don’t ask for anything because I’m just happy to be here. I’m happy to have the opportunity to work on this.”

Connie Woodbury says she and her husband, Robert, and their other children are very grateful for the support given R.J. “I feel like we’re just a big family here,” she says. “We thank everyone, especially Salisbury and Rowan County, for the prayers to keep him motivated and just keep him going. He doesn’t give up.”

R.J. continues to amaze her, Connie says, with his openness about such a sensitive issue. “When I read your last article about Robert, I couldn’t read it all without crying,” she says. “For him to put some of his journal in the newspaper, it just made me feel really good.

“I just thank God he’s writing a journal of his good days and bad days. We see a teapot sitting on the shelf and we see how beautiful it is, but we don’t know what that teapot went through to get where it’s at.

“I see my son as being a beautiful person inside and out.”

Stephenson says she is thrilled by the progress R.J. has made. “I think he is an absolutely amazing person,” she says, “and I admire his courage and his will.

“Thank everyone for their continued support,” she adds. “The community has really helped him to stay and do what he needs to do.”

When he gets homesick and discouraged, and he often does, R.J. says he thinks about all the people back home who are praying for him and that keeps him going.

Anyone wishing to contact R.J. Woodbury may e-mail him at robertwoodbury@bellsouth.net or write to him at Andover Village Retirement Community, Room 210, 486 S. Main St., Andover, Ohio 44003. R.J. says people can also call him on his cellphone, 704-213-0647 as long as it’s after 9 p.m. or on weekends.

Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249 or kchaffin@salisburypost.com.

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