Linda Fondren and Her Quest to Shape Up Vicksburg

I’ve been waiting for April since January. Not because of the longer days of spring, or April Fool’s or because it’s the birthday of Kourtney Kardashian. But because my latest story, which I wrote in January, is now published in Southwest Airline’s Spirit Magazine.

I wish that every story I wrote brought this kind of anticipation, but every day can’t be Christmas, can it?

This was such an inspiring story to work on. It’s about Linda Fondren, an entrepreneur who, a few years ago, opened a gym in Vicksburg, Mississippi aimed at women who were intimidated by gyms. She was tired of her home state being called the “Fattest State in the Nation” (now seven years running) and decided to put her money where her mouth is. Her goal was to make working out fun. And she’s done it. Fondren has led the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi to lose a collective 30,000 pounds, and counting. Through the journey, the men and women losing weight have seen their lives change. Cholesterol is down, energy is up, they’re eating better and so are their families.

Visiting Vicksburg was an adventure in and of itself. I flew into Jackson just after New Year’s and drove a little over a half hour to Vicksburg. Although it was 5 in the evening, there weren’t too many cars on the highway, and through the entire commute, only one of them actually passed me. The rest were going well under the speed limit. When I arrived in Vicksburg and shared that, she smiled and said, “They have absolutely nowhere to be.”

Vicksburg, itself, is a charming town on the “Mighty Muddy Mississippi” (as Linda referred to it), lolling along with its own Southern drawl. There are fewer sidewalks here than an any place I’ve ever seen, with the exception of developing countries. That, I quickly learned, is because no one walks here (or no one walks because there are no sidewalks, which came first?). In fact, I booked a hotel room .4 miles from Linda’s gym. I figured I’d just walk there in the morning, since it was nearly 70 degrees and much warmer than Chicago, where I live. But when I saw the only path to get there–an outer road of the freeway–I changed my mind and hopped in the rental car.

I spent parts of three days in Vicksburg, driving around with Linda to meet with the mayor and other elected officials. And while she knew about everyone in town–and everyone sure knew her–what struck me was her ability to go beyond the normal small talk and show that she really is bound and determined to make a difference here. At each office she visited, she was as tight with the ladies at the front desks as the elected officials, and she did her best to try to motivate them to come to her open gym, her monthly walks and other events. They responded. And they’re still responding.

It seems so cliché, so trite, the phrase that one person can make a difference. But when you meet someone like Linda Fondren, it’s easy to see just how profound that difference can be.

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