Mel Thomas is a woman on a mission and I am honoured to call her my friend. I discovered her Legacy Project, KYUP! Project when her story was featured on SBS Feed as ‘The domestic violence survivor teaching women to fight like a girl’.
Mel is the mother of two young girls and a writer, speaker, media commentator and self-defence educator with more than 15 years martial arts experience. She held the title of Australian Hapkido Woman of the Year in 2005 and is actively involved in the martial arts community.
More than a martial artist, Mel is a champion for change. Born into domestic violence with a front row seat to unhealthy relationships, emotional, verbal and physical violence. The cycle of violence continued into her early relationships with aggressive, controlling and abusive partners.
She was bullied throughout high school where an incident inadvertently revealed her violent home life. Sadly, the bullies were also living with domestic violence. Mel turned the table on the bullies when she joined a hardened inner city gang, but the sense of belonging and feeling of protection came at a cost. No longer a victim, she was now as mean as the meanest of girls with little regard for herself or others.
Increasingly hostile and aggressive, a future of poor choices and violence was inevitable. The turning point was a chance meeting with a positive new friend and an introduction to martial arts. Through friendship and her martial arts journey, Mel overcame adversity with enviable street smarts, resilience and courage.
KYUP! Project is founded on her passion for self-worth and self-defence and takes violence prevention and empowerment beyond awareness into strong-hearted action read on to discover her story.
What inspired you to create KYUP?
The birth of my first daughter in 2012 was a catalyst moment. It had been more than 20 years since I grew up and moved away from my father with his gambling and alcohol addiction and undiagnosed mental health issues. Domestic violence wasn’t something I talked about throughout my life, in fact I never considered myself a victim; but with the birth of my daughter I found myself pouring over old family photos. I felt my mother and yes, my father’s pain all over again but as an adult and a parent it was difficult to understand and have compassion for their choices. That came later. What I realised was that it was important to speak out so that my mother’s suffering wasn’t for nothing.
Was there an event/events which served as motivation for the work you now do?
There were two things. Firstly my now husband Craig, introduced me to Hapkido a form of martial arts. Hapkido practices multiple self-defence and the first classes I witnessed blew me away that women could be so loud and powerful against men. Until that moment, I was eighteen years old at the time, it had never even occurred to me I could learn to protect myself and I wanted to know if I could defend myself and stand my ground. It didn’t come easily to me. It’s an equally rewarding and demanding experience. However Hapkido is free of judgement, everyone is a learner and the journey is continuous. A black belt is a white belt who never gave up!
The second moment occurred when I met a 14-year-old girl while speaking to a group at a business conference about my two great passions, my daughter and martial arts. Afterwards, the shy teen asked me about self-defence. It wasn’t long before she was telling me the shocking details of an assault that had taken place in her local park after school. She was alone with her little brother and filling in time until her mum came home from work. A group of older boys approached her and nobody else was around. She prayed that the boys would stop or that someone would come and intervene. That’s not what happened.
Angela was assaulted that day; just weeks after her father had committed suicide. Between the assault and the suicide Angela and her family were at breaking point.
With tears in her eyes and a tiny little voice she finished her story and asked me: “What could I have done?”
The truth was I didn’t have a bloody clue what she could have done but I recognised the question. I had been asking myself the same question most of my life.
Angela asked me to talk to her friends and share tips from my self-defence training. It felt completely natural to help the girls understand more about how to protect themselves emotionally, physically and mentally. My inner perfectionist wanted to ‘get it right’ for the girls and I researched intuition. I interviewed Police and I found case studies the girls could relate to. I wanted them to learn more than how to protect themselves. I wanted them to feel strong and confident to head off a situation before it transpired into physical violence. Mostly I wanted them to understand how easy it was to accept violence against themselves if they didn’t believe they weren’t worth protecting.
My idea was this. What if I could combine my personal experience and specialist self-defence training to create something to end the cycle of violence against women and children? What if, instead of feeling embarrassed and ashamed of my personal story, I owned it? A friend encouraged me to apply for a scholarship with the Layne Beachley Aim for the Stars Foundation and when Layne Beachley called me personally to tell me she believed in the idea and that I had won a business scholarship I started to think about how I could bring the idea to life.
KYUP! Project was born! KYUP! is a Korean word we use in martial arts and it means to shout. The irony is never lost on me, for the longest time I didn’t have a voice and here I am today, giving girls a voice.
In the year before making your career change, how would you describe your mental, emotional and spiritual state to a close and trusted friend?
Before KYUP! Project I was at a loss. My career in advertising was on hold, Craig and I had been trying to start a family and we thought it would be easy but we were wrong. Failed attempts at IVF were taking their toll on me physically and emotionally. It was impossible to continue on with martial arts thanks to the fertility treatments and I remember this time as an emotional limbo. I was shopping for a friends babyshower gift, something I had grown to dread with mixed feeling of jealousy and genuine joy when I came across the book Buddhism for Mothers by Sarah Napthali. My friend loved the book so much she returned it to me and insisted I read it. I am so thankful she did, wow! I found comfort and healing in the principles of Buddhism and for the first time in my life connected with my own spirituality. The book still heavily influences my work with teens to this day.
How does KYUP bring your unique talents to life? In what way does it give you personal fulfillment or a sense of purpose?
As a teenager, I loved writing and I secretly wanted to be a journalist. I imagined myself as a roving 60 minutes reporter and now I realise how much of my work with KYUP! Project has in common with my inner investigative journalist!
In my quest to find the answers to family violence I dug deep into Australia’s dark past. Wading through white papers and statistics and poring over countless Government reports from Auditors-General and the Australian Institute of Criminology and more. Historical facts and data are critical to understanding why the cycle of abuse continues. The answers are there for all of us to see but it’s not pretty.
I am proud that sharing my story of family violence coupled with historical facts makes it possible for other Australians to relate. I have heard from all age groups, including seniors and it really hits home that we are not alone.
What drives you to do the work that you do and keep going?
That’s easy! The kids. Watching disengaged girls and boys with slumped shoulders literally transform into buzzing, stronger and noticeably more confident young people through experiencing KYUP! workshops is really empowering.
While the kids inspire me, I am equally fueled by the injustices of our system that fails our ‘troubled kids’. I have worked with young people who would cause most of us to cross the street in a dark alley however it’s the toughest kids who are truly the weakest. There is quite simply few things more inspiring in my life than earning the trust of a young person who has lost faith in grown-ups.
What has been a highlight of the business so far?
Woman power! When I think about the growth of KYUP! Project and my personal development it’s all thanks to the support of other women (and a handful of awesome blokes) but overwhelmingly, women who have not only supported KYUP! Project but actively taken on mentoring and helping me in every area of the business.
I started with nothing more than the idea “what if I could create something to end the cycle of violence using my specialist self-defence training and authentically owning my story?” When Layne called to tell me I was successful in 2013 it was a life-changing phone call. Thanks to the scholarship I was able to bring KYUP! Project to life. Layne is an incredible mentor and I have been an Ambassador for the foundation. Aim for the Stars has opened so many doors for me personally and professionally and the Foundation is at the heart of many inspiring relationships.
How does your work serve a higher purpose on planet earth? And how does that make you feel?
My higher purpose is to end the cycle of violence against women and children. It’s a colossal problem that reaches beyond the suburbs of Sydney. People throw their hands in the air and tell me it can’t be done, the problem is too big and it is. When you consider every community within every culture of every nation across the world is dealing with statistically one core issue – men’s violence against women and children.
Most people find it impossible to wrap their head around this one simple truth and I was inspired by an interview with Anna Bligh in the Australian Newspaper. Her take on domestic violence was so simple “you don’t hit some you consider your equal”.
It’s profoundly true and if you step it up a notch – you don’t hit, murder, maim, incarcerate and oppress someone you consider your equal.
My purpose is to end gender inequality. Can you imagine? It would mean the end of violence, sex trafficking, child marriage, female genital mutilation and sexist advertising, just for starters. We would have more women in leadership, equal pay and equal rights for the human race.
I truly believe if we can inspire the next generation to value and champion their safety and wellbeing with self-worth and self-protection skills we can end the cycle of violence.
- Self-worth because if you don’t think you’re worth fighting for you won’t stand up for yourself or for others and;
- Self-protection skills empower young people. These are skills that go beyond fighting off potential attackers. I am talking about the power of the voice and the ability to turn around accountability and choice when it comes to personal safety with self-worth and self-protection at a grass-roots level with the next generation.
What great lesson or lessons have you learnt so far in life?
- Practising martial arts. Through martial arts training, I have learned breathing techniques that reduce my stress and anxiety.
- I have learned strength and resilience go hand in hand with compassion and forgiveness from personal experience.
- Don’t hold onto hurt – I never knew how strong I was until I forgave people who were not sorry and accepted apologies I never received.
How would you like to be remembered?
Having recently buried my father in law this is a poignant question. I’m reminded that accomplishments and material possessions don’t make my life worthwhile. Showing up for family and friends is really all that counts in the end. I would like to be remembered for my compassion, energy and kindness but I’ll probably be remembered for my taste in bad TV shows and love of spicy food. I love kids, not just my own and I hope I am remembered for empowering kids to own their truth and grow up strong.
If you could give one piece of advice what would it be and why?
In my experience forgiveness, compassion and tolerance are the pillars of strength, humility and acceptance. The kindest and wisest people I know overcame hardship by choosing forgiveness and tolerance. I’m not just talking about forgiving others either, it takes fortitude and grace to forgive yourself.
I am a huge fan of The Book of Joy with inspirational advice from the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Check it out, there is so much wisdom in their experience. I especially love when Tutu says “those who say forgiving is a sign of weakness haven’t tried it.” Are you strong enough to forgive?
A few of my favourite bonus questions with Mel…
Who or what is your favourite:
- Musician? John Mayer but I’m a fickle fan and I go off him when he does and says stupid stuff. I have always had a thing for Neil Finn (Crowded House) and Tim Freedman (The Whitlams) and I don’t know their personal lives so I never went off them.
- Author? Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Gilbert, Peter Carey and Christos Tsiolkas, Cheryl Strayed
- Mantra or Quote? I bow to Oprah and just about everything she says resonates with me but I have a special place in my heart for Muhammad Ali. I love the simplicity of this quote…. What you’re thinking is what you’re becoming. Muhammad Ali
Find out more about KYUP! Project:
Thank you for being here and consciously choosing to explore the different ways that ordinary people are living extraordinary lives by serving a higher purpose through their daily work. Everything we do here at Your Legacy Project is designed to empower your greatest vision and inspire you to bring your unique talents to life.
So tell me, what is your Legacy Project going to be? Let’s learn from Mel and inspire the next generation to value and champion their safety and wellbeing so that we can end the cycle of violence. Let’s start by doing this together and share this interview with your friends and family. Are you concerned about domestic violence, have an idea or suggestion on how we can all combat this epidemic? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
And remember, Live with purpose!