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INVERNESS — Lisa Leeper smiles easily.
At 47, she lives at Avante at Inverness, most likely the youngest resident at the nursing care facility.
She came there a year ago from Lake County after a hip injury, weighing 412 pounds.
She came with four goals: to lose between 200 to 250 pounds (she has already lost more than 100), to get much-needed hip surgery, to be healthy and strong enough to get her own house or apartment, and her ultimate goal — to find a “nice Christian man, settle down and have a family.”
Georgette Bass, Avante’s activities director, calls her an inspiration.
It’s not easy losing 100-plus pounds, especially when you spend most of your time in a wheelchair, especially when you live in a nursing home.
“When I go through hardships, I remember the scripture verse, ‘I take pleasure in my infirmities ... for when I am weak, then I am strong.’ I’ve overcome a lot,” Leeper says.
She grew up feeling unloved. A house fire 10 years ago destroyed everything she owned. At one time she was homeless, living in her car, living in a shelter. Her mother tried to kill herself. Her stepfather, whom she adored, died. She gained 250 pounds.
But through it all, she learned that she was, indeed, strong.
“I like to encourage people,” Leeper says. “I have determination. I tell people, ‘Your past failures, you just have to get past them. Determination — you have to keep at it.’ ”
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Leeper grew up in Leesburg. She worked in a daycare center — she loves kids — and then found a good job in a school cafeteria.
In 2003, she lost everything in a house fire and ended up in a women’s shelter for six months.
“I didn’t know I could handle such a crisis,” she says.
At the shelter she was required to take drug and alcohol abuse classes, since most of the women there dealt with those issues, but that wasn’t her issue. She felt out of place and prayed that something would “fall into her lap.”
She was at a Wednesday night church service and a piece of paper fluttered through the air and landed on her lap. On it was information for a house to rent.
“I loved that place,” she says. “It had knotty pine ceilings — I was there for four years until the rent went up and I couldn’t stay there.”
She lived with her mother for a while, but that was difficult. When her mother tried to kill herself with an overdose of pills, she was involuntarily institutionalized for six months and lost her apartment.
“So, I was homeless again, and the shelter wouldn’t take me, so I slept in my car for two months,” she says.
A friend took her in, but had her move out after a while. Then she found a church that let her sleep there. Eventually she wound up in the hospital because of her hip until she came to Avante, the only facility that would take her.
Through it all, her weight steadily climbed.
Leeper says she tried to hide her stress and her worry, her feelings of being unloved and rejected, with eating. By the time she reached 400 pounds and the doctors told her she couldn’t have hip surgery until she lost at least 150 pounds, she knew she needed to make some changes, and that it would take all the determination she had.
She says the only food she has is the food that Avante serves to everyone, so she has taught herself to say no to the desserts and to watch her portions.
“At first, people would sneak me things to eat, but I realized I was only hurting myself,” she says. “Losing the first 100 pounds felt great. I started getting my self-esteem and confidence back. I haven’t weighed under 300 pounds in 10 years.”
Exercise is a challenge, but she does what she can. She walks with assistance and can do some exercises from her chair.
She says she has a picture in her head of what she wants to look like.
“I always picture myself weighing 200,” she says. “I dream about wearing a nice slim outfit, a wrap-around dress with a V-neck, maybe purple or green. I dream about having a fireplace and a house, sitting there cozy with a hubby and a family.”
Since arriving at Avante, Leeper has served on the resident council. She facilitates a craft group and makes jewelry to sell to raise funds for resident outings. She talks to people, encourages them, tries to get them to see the good in their situation.
“She helps new people — she mothers people,” Bass says. “We love Lisa. She’s really an inspiration to everyone here.”
Some days, Leeper feels discouraged. Losing 200 or 250 pounds is a daunting task, so she sets small goals — 5 pounds this week, 10 pounds this month.
And then there’s her future hubby. That’s what keeps her motivated and moving forward, 1 pound at a time. It’s what she wants more than anything.
“I told my mom that God’s going to give me a guy who’s gentle and who will treat me like a queen,” she says. “She says he doesn’t exist, but she’s wrong.”
Chronicle reporter Nancy Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-564-2927.