Our People: From breaking her neck, to making a difference in the community

BUSY: Darfield resident Melissa Jebson leads a busy life in her role as secretary for about seven township and reserve committees after she broke her neck in 1993 and was lucky to survive.

Darfield resident Melissa Jebson, 56, was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal earlier this year. She spoke to Georgia O’Connor-Harding about her passion for helping the Malvern community and the life-changing car accident she survived in 1993

You do a lot of work for the community. Is there anything coming up on the horizon?

This is probably my least busy month. March is chaotic. I did announcing last weekend for the Canterbury Horse & Pony Breeders Society Incorporated show. I am judging or announcing most weekends. I had two meetings last month and about seven community committees have their first meeting in February. In March, as well as my committees I have also got shows – I am the chairwoman of the Central District of the Royal Agricultural Society, and I have been asked to judge at the Upper Clutha A&P Show in Wanaka, which is a two day show. I am also announcing at the New Zealand Horse of the Year show in Hawke’s Bay in March.

What does your role in
announcing involve?

I might do some interviews; I am on a roving mic. I might interview some judges and find out how the competitors are feeling when they win.

Is it a fun job announcing?

You don’t want to be on the mic all the time, you don’t want to upset anybody, and you have to be very politically correct. I enjoy it at the A&P shows. We breed sheep and cattle so I have a bit of knowledge in that area. I enjoy interviewing people who have done well with their sheep and cattle.

You are the secretary for five township and reserve committees in Malvern and one in Ellesmere. Why are you so passionate about helping out?

The rural sector is not dying, but it is losing a bit of identity. With people putting a bit into their community plus the A&P shows, they are keeping these rural communities alive. I am in the background and enjoy helping. As secretary, I don’t put too much input in – I just take down what they are talking about.

Which committees are the most interesting or have the most going on?

Each township committee has its own interests. Dunsandel has built a wonderful new hall for their community centre. It has been great being part of that and watching the community really get behind the committee. The community made it happen. In Sheffield, you have a few challenges with speed. A new Allied Petroleum station has been put in and there were a few hiccups with that. It is working through the little obstacles or the little things in the township that need ironing out. Kimberly Hall’s roof is being upgraded. The Glentunnel Community Centre and the Tawera Memorial Hall Community Centre committees are working passionately to keep their halls going, and the same with the Sheffield Community Hall, which is going through a few problems with the structure upgrade.

You received a Queen’s Service Medal in the New Year Honours. How did that

I was blown away.  I do it because I enjoy what I do really. I do a lot at Darfield High School – I am the rugby administrator there and I am the chairwoman of Creative New Zealand, Selwyn District. Because I have been a singer and I have represented New Zealand, I enjoy the arts and I am passionate about people being able to access art, especially in rural areas. It has improved a lot – I think the way Creative New Zealand has local people on its committees is fantastic.

I didn’t know you were a singer?

Yes, I was in the New Zealand Youth Choir. I sing mainly now at funerals and weddings. I enjoy my singing. It is something that helps me relax.

Do you have a favourite type of music?

Classical, folk and stage
show musicals. I do enjoy some of the pop genre happening at
the moment – some things more than others.

I have always enjoyed Shania Twain, Tina Turner and Elton John. I sang with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. I was in the New Zealand Youth Choir and we sang with her in a concert at Wembley Stadium in front of Prince Charles. One of my other most memorable moments was singing at St Paul’s Cathedral. Absolutely amazing. We sang unaccompanied and our sound went right up to the top dome. It just floated up and you could still hear it. I play the organ sometimes at St Ambrose in Sheffield.

Tell me about the car accident where you broke your neck?

In 1993 I was involved in a car accident. My car tyre blew out and I woke up in Burwood Spinal Unit. I was kept in an induced coma, and coming out of the coma I was wondering if I could use my legs. My husband John and I were only six months into our marriage so it was quite a significant time in my life – especially when the specialist told me not to be surprised if I didn’t conceive because my body went through such trauma. I am very lucky, I have had two wonderful children. But I got post-natal depression, and I have to cope with the attributes of a head injury – the lack of tolerance, the lack of concentration, the lack of stamina. I get very tired. There are lots of people in our community that have had head injuries and accidents, but they are out there trying to do their best. I have always said right from my accident “you are a long time dead,” and I have pushed myself.

Tell me about the injury from your accident?

I broke my C2 bone, it is the hangman’s fracture – the one that breaks when you are hung. All your vital organs run through that C2. I have learnt so much about the neck because I still have ongoing problems with mine. I broke it in a healable position. If you look at the actual bone it is about the size of your thumbnail. A couple of millimetres to the side I would have been dead, and a couple of millimetres further up than that I would have been paraplegic. I am sure I had somebody with me that day when I looked at the heavens because I am very, very lucky. I am very lucky to be here, to be able to have kids, to be able to be involved with the community, to have such great friends, and to be involved with such great organisations.

What was the sequence of events with the accident?

Apparently – and I can’t remember it because that is how your brain heals and copes – the car tyre blew out, so the car swung to the left and hurtled the fence and then rolled about three times. If I hadn’t had my seat belt on I would have been history.

You are extremely lucky.

It was interesting – when the accident happened people were digging potatoes in the next door paddock and they thought it was cardboard flying through the air.

Where did it happen?

Further up from the corner of the Old West Coast Rd and Waimakariri Gorge Rd in Waddington, just out of Sheffield. I was heading down to umpire netball. I was the only senior umpire and I never turned up. I am usually quite reliable so they knew something was wrong.

You are involved in so many things now, including being a national equestrian judge. Where did your passion for horses come from?

I started riding when I was 14 – I’d love to be able to ride again but the accident put paid to that. My neck hasn’t healed. I can’t turn the full range, but I can turn my head. I have to be careful. I was told I shouldn’t work with young stock in case they bash their head into mine. I have to be careful what I do. That is why I moved into horse judging and announcing. Horse judging is wonderful, and I have been very lucky to have been able to judge all over New Zealand.

Did you grow up on a farm?
No I didn’t. My father was a builder and we lived in Rangiora.

Where did your love of agriculture come from?

When I finished my diploma in teaching, I went back home to Rangiora and didn’t really know anybody, so I joined the New Zealand Young Farmers club. I got to meet people, and that is how I got into netball umpiring. The club provides an amazing avenue for experiencing rural activities, even if you haven’t got a rural bent. I represented New Zealand in the Japanese Goodwill Mission in 1991, where I was a guest of the Japanese government. There were five New Zealanders that went across and we joined up with more than 300 Japanese people to share our culture. There were about 15 other countries represented.