Jessi Wolz goes overseas to help others through their trauma.
Growing up, Jessi Wolz could not foresee that she would one day live in Kenya. Before entering middle school, Jessi and her family lived in Winterwood Trailer Park.
“My parents moved to a small plot of land outside of Holts Summit, where we moved into a doublewide trailer,” Jessi says. “I share this detail because growing up in trailers shaped who I am today, in my dedication to social justice, and it informed my career choices. Feeling economically marginalized and stigmatized, watching my parents constantly struggle and stress over making ends meet — that was an impactful experience in my childhood. It also made me extremely resourceful because I was excluded from much of American materialism growing up. As a result, I found it easy to see beyond materialism to find meaning later in life.”
Jessi eventually moved to another home in Holts Summit and attended middle and high school in Jefferson City. She lived in Holts Summit from 1990 through 2010 and then moved to Washington, D.C. Jessi’s international travel, however, began in 2007.
“My passion for international work was first ignited in the high school Spanish classroom of Bob Roling,” Jessi says. “Spanish came easily to me, and as I progressed through the classes, I realized that language was a window to another culture and worldview. My curiosity to understand life beyond my own American culture was ignited and it has never ceased.”
Jessi embarked on her first international trip to Juarez, Mexico, before starting college.
“This trip planted the seed for what would become the driver behind my career to be of service,” she says.
While at Missouri State University, Jessi studied abroad in Costa Rica. This would be the first of many longer-term international experiences.
“I loved every minute of it,” she remembers. “You could say that the travel bug bit me hard, and I knew that I wanted international travel to be a part of my life forever.”
During a trip to Argentina, Jessi began evaluating what direction her career and life would go.
“I knew I loved traveling and living in other countries, and I wanted to be of service, but I didn’t know what to do with that as a girl from Missouri whose parents had a pretty average Midwestern life.”
She discovered a career path in international development where you could work in the foreign aid industry, traveling or living overseas to manage programs aimed at achieving poverty-reduction outcomes across the world. She applied and was accepted on a scholarship to a graduate program at George Washington University and made the move to Washington, D.C., in 2010. Jessi found an interest in peacebuilding and post-conflict development in her studies, and she dreamed of working in conflict zones to help in these efforts. She then worked at an NGO after graduate school before she received a LinkedIn message from a former professor asking if she’d be interested in a job in South Sudan. Jessi didn’t think twice about the decision — it was a resounding yes.
“South Sudan was the newest country in the world, and I absolutely wanted to be a part of this nation-building effort,” she says.
While working in South Sudan, war erupted in the capital city of Juda, where Jessi lived. Artillery fire and gunshots sounded around her compound of expats for days.
“I knew that the warring parties were not after expats. They were intending to harm each other. It was a tribal conflict, but it still deeply impacted me knowing that outside the safety and privilege of my existence there, innocent people were being rounded up and killed en masse while I slept.”
“On the flight back to the U.S., when I could finally try to relax, my body was definitely experiencing acute PTSD. I had very vivid dreams of war and gunshots.”Jessi
Jessi flew out around Christmas that year and spent the holiday of 2013 in the U.S. “On the flight back to the U.S., when I could finally try to relax, my body was definitely experiencing acute PTSD. I had very vivid dreams of war and gunshots,” she says.
Her work in South Sudan ended in May 2014 as the war moved out of the capital and the needs of the country changed.
“What I experienced in South Sudan, professionally and personally, really shook me to my core,” she says.
She began examining her mental health and started going to therapy, meditating, and going to yoga four to five times a week. Yoga became a major feature in Jessi’s life after returning from South Sudan. She read the book “The Body Keeps the Score,” on the neuroscience of trauma, and she knew she wanted to work in healing and peacebuilding. In April of 2017, Jessi took a month off work to travel to India and complete her yoga teacher training, another life-changing and very spiritual experience. While on a work trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jessi had an intense, reassuring spiritual experience while meditating.
“After that, I decided it was time to make big changes. I flew back to D.C., submitted my resignation, and decided to move to Kenya. I flew to Los Angeles just before leaving to train in trauma-informed yoga for a week. I didn’t have a plan for work in Kenya, but I knew I wanted to work with the body to help people heal. For me, this was critical and a huge gap in my industry. We were doing all this peacebuilding work around the world but doing very little on mental health and trauma recovery.”
Jessi moved to Lake Naivahsa, Kenya, in July 2017 to pursue a new career path in trauma recovery, healing, and peacebuilding.
“I had a small network of friends and former colleagues in Nairobi. I took this opportunity to have a quiet, yogi life for a while and find my footing in Kenya,” she says. “Lake Naivasha is this beautiful place where acacia trees grow, and giraffes, zebras, hippos, and monkeys roam freely.” It was there where she began teaching yoga and doing consulting work in the foreign aid industry. Through a friend associated with the nonprofit SHOFCo, in the Kibera slum, Jessi was asked to come to Nairobi and start a trauma-informed yoga program for girls in February 2018. She taught girls once a week with a program based on her trauma-informed yoga training. Jessi called the program Growing Girl Gurus. She chose this name because “guru” in Sanskrit means remover of darkness. The program aimed to empower girls to heal their own trauma and transform it to light, and to pass these skills and the wisdom of healing from trauma onto others. Jessi ended the program in 2021 when she began working for RefuSHE full time. Jessi currently works for RefuSHE as a member of their executive team developing neuroscience-backed mental health strategies for refugee women and girls in Nairobi.
“In 2019, I fundraised for and co-facilitated a trauma- informed yoga training for nine refugee girls and two staff counselors. I did this with a U.K. nonprofit called The Ompowerment Program, which I had linked to through a friend the year prior. They had a curriculum for training refugees and refugee supporting organizations in yoga.” Jessi now oversees the strategy to make sure RefuSHE is the leader in this field in the urban refugee sector in Kenya.
“It’s truly full circle,” she says. “I grew up with mental illness and economic marginalization, and I’m now helping to bring to life a mental health strategy for socially and economically excluded populations.”
Local Jefferson City Favorites
Central Dairy and Arris’ Pizza are a few of Jessi’s favorite things about Jefferson City. “Most of my family lives in either Jefferson City or Holts Summit,” she says. “My parents still live in Holts Summit, while my extended family lives in Jeff. I try to get back at least once a year despite living very far away. In the past year, I’ve been back three times, which is unprecedented. COVID-19 and the access to vaccines in the U.S. brought me back more frequently this year, as these haven’t been available in Kenya until very recently.”
Undergraduate Studies: Missouri State University (Spanish)
Graduate School: George Washington University (Master’s in international development studies)
Yoga Training: In 2017, Jessi completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training in India and then a 40-hour training in trauma informed yoga in Los Angeles.
Additional Training:Recently, in 2019 and 2020, Jessi studied global mental health and refugee trauma with Harvard University Medical School as her work with trauma and refugees further progressed.