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Tracy Frank, Published December 03 2013

Her Voice: N.D. woman uses yoga to help Kenyans cope with stress

Her Voice is a weekly article about women in or from our area and how they make an impact on the world around them. If you know someone SheSays should feature in HerVoice, email Tracy Frank at tfrank@forumcomm.com.

FARGO – While in Kenya two years ago, Alicia Helion learned people with HIV wanted help dealing with extreme stress.

“I explored yoga as a possible technique that I could bring back to them,” said the 35-year-old North Dakota native, who recently moved to Kenya.

Yoga helps Helion manage her own stress, but more than that, it’s giving her a way to help others, she said.

Helion, who grew up in Binford, left her job as an associate professor of psychology at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wis., to open an education center in rural, western Kenya.

The Amani Educational Center (“Amani” means “peace” in Swahili) is for men and women who have HIV or other disabilities. It will provide classes and information on health-related topics like HIV prevention and stress reduction.

Helion will also visit surrounding villages to conduct health seminars.

“Having a center for this particular village will be very helpful so people can attend the center regularly,” she said. “It is also becoming clear that this center will be more than just for improving health.”

The center will also serve as a general educational hub, where villagers can learn technical skills, entrepreneurship or other skills related to self-sufficiency, Helion added.

Several women with disabilities are training to take over the center when Helion eventually leaves, she said.

“A major goal is to find ways for the center to become sustainable, training women with disabilities to become the leaders and major educators of the Amani Educational Center,” she said.

Helion graduated from North Dakota State University in 2001. She has a doctoral degree in health psychology and has done health education work in Kenya before.

While working for the past six years at Lakeland College, Helion volunteered in developing countries in the summers.

“In 2011, people with HIV in Kenya told me they were very stressed and needed me to bring information to them to reduce stress,” she said. “So I learned about techniques including yoga to bring to them the following summer. Yoga really resonated with them.”

Before she left for Kenya in late October, Helion spent time raising money for the center through events like yoga workshops; indiegogo, a crowd-funding website; and selling bags, totes and necklaces handmade in Kenya.

Helion has no immediate plans to return to the U.S., but will decide as she goes along, based on how things progress at the center, she said.

Being in Africa has changed Helion, she said. She appreciates what she has, and she’s become more uncomfortable with having too much. She wastes less and has more appreciation for the role small business plays in the local economy, she said.

“In Kenya, I see so many people who work extremely hard every day but their choices are often limited,” Helion said. “There are very few assistance programs for Kenyans. If you don’t have money and your farm didn’t produce enough food this season to feed your family, your kids go hungry. Your kids can starve.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526

How to help

To make donations to the Amani Educational Center, send a check to Atonement Lutheran Church, 4601 S. University Drive, Fargo, ND 58104 or use Atonement’s online system at atonementfargo.org. Specify that the funds are going to the Amani Center.

To sponsor Alicia Helion’s living expenses or to purchase a bag made by Kenyans to fund the center, email amanicenterkenya@gmail.com.