Free self-defense for women program fights back


For The Sun News

Matt Silfer for The Sun News.

Sheila Rudesill may be 76 but do not assume she is helpless. For the last seven years, this Socastee resident has continued to train in self-defense learning common sense ways to protect herself if needed.

Rudesill joins other women of all ages for a free monthly self-defense class offered thanks to the concern of The Karate Studio instructors Nelson Melendez and his wife Lisa Melendez, who is also a massage therapist and certified health coach. The couple owns the SC Wellness & Fitness Center, which houses their karate school and several other wellness programs.

The Melendezes began the first Wednesday of the month program nine years ago to offer women an opportunity to learn physical self-defense techniques, increase their awareness, safety strategies and assertiveness skills that can save their lives during an attack.

The program, which runs from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month, has been hugely successful and has grown in popularity through the years. Rudesill has found the program a way to increase her confidence while sharing the knowledge she has learned with other women.

Like many older women, Rudesill found herself in an uncomfortable situation when her husband died. It left her shaken to the point she took a couple of bad falls.

“It leaves you very vulnerable to suddenly find yourself by yourself,” said Rudesill who was 69 years old at the time she became a widow.

Trying to move on, Rudesill, decided to take a yoga class but was diverted to a noncredit self-defense class offered through Coastal Carolina University’s OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) program for people ages 55 and older.

“Nelson (Melendez) was teaching a four-week course and another woman said she wanted to take it but not by herself. I had no clue what was involved but she and I both had just lost our husbands so we enrolled together,” Rudesill said.

Taking that class has led to a seven-year relationship with the Melendez family, she calls a “nurturing family.”

Through-defense training, Rudesill found a way to strengthen herself physically and mentally, which improved her confidence level. She not only continues to take the monthly free class offered through the S.C. Wellness & Fitness Center on Holmestown Road, she works with Nelson Melendez to take self-defense training to seniors at two retirement communities.

“It is kind of unusual to find someone so skilled to have the ability and patience to teach older people how to take care of themselves,” Rudesill said. “My issue was balance and he said he’d take me as a student. When I said, ‘do you know how old I am,” he told me it didn’t make a difference.”

With the homicide rate for girls and women rising in the United States, women like Rudesill are seeking ways to feel more confident about defending themselves when they are out alone. Even shopping at a local mall can bring danger. In January 2016, a woman one day from her 79th birthday was shot and killed during an apparent mugging while waiting in the car in a mall parking lot while her daughter dashed into J.C. Penney to shop.

The Melendezes, originally from New York, have spent their careers serving youth at risk and teaching individuals how to defend themselves. They are so dedicated to the idea of helping others, they have started a nonprofit foundation that would allow them to reach more individuals who might not have the means to pay for training.

Previously a law enforcement officer, Nelson knows firsthand about violence.

“We try to teach people tools, even if they have to run, so they have dignity at the end of the day,” he said. The couple’s lives are engulfed in safety and it is important to them to continue offering empowerment to women as the crime rate against women continuously rises.

In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report stating that homicide is one of the leading causes of death for women 44 years old or younger but added that homicides among “young, racial/ethnic minority women are disproportionately affected.”

The CDC report shows that for nearly half of female homicide victims of all ages and ethnicity for which circumstances were known, a current or former male intimate partner was the killer. In 2015, 3,519 girls and women in the United States were victims of homicide, according to the report. But violence against women affects all ages.

While Nelson, a sixth degree black belt, used to teach the free monthly classes, as the program has grown, he turned the training over to second-degree black belt Katie Forrest.

“As we grew, it was great to have some help,” Lisa said. She said they are pleased to have a woman to teach the class and help other women build confidence in defending themselves.

“Not everyone wants to do karate. Self-defense is a little different. A woman who has been coming to the class for years was confronted by a man who wanted her to take him to Conway. Because she has been coming here and learned to stand up for herself, she said no and he became aggressive. She was able to use her voice—her first line of defense—and was able to get people to notice she was in distress.”

Nelson said the first thing they teach is how to open your mouth, scream and say no. “I give them permission to be loud,” Nelson said. “We teach people to be forceful and make noise by doing things like dropping merchandise on the floor in a store.”

The Melendezes said they are seeing life change around the Grand Strand. “We are seeing more incidents of violence, more people crossing the line,” Nelson said.

Nelson urges women to use their common sense. “Be aware, don’t wear blinders,” he said. “Stop looking at your cell phone. If you look meek and mild someone will walk all over you. Be a peacock!”

“Self-defense is not pretty,” Nelson continued. “It is ugly.”

Lisa said there is no first strike in karate. They teach people to defend themselves but never to initiate aggression. But she said when you do have to defend yourself, a woman should strike hard and often, then get out.”

“Do not stay and grapple. Run away if you can and get away. We want you to stay alive,” she said.

Freelance writer Angela Nicholas can be reached at