“Things aren’t as bad as they seem.”

February 13, 2014 | 11 a.m.

Minnesota missionary works to bring hope to Kenyans living with HIV/AIDS

Culture | Julia Hipp and Emma Nichols for The Clarion

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Jessica Hasslen has been living in Kenya since 2001 and currently works with a program called Maarifa, which empowers Kenyan youth living with HIV/AIDS. | Photo for The Clarion courtesy of Jessica Hasslen

“What kind of food is that?,” “Why is he walking in the middle of the road?,” and most importantly, “What are we doing here?” are all questions commonly asked by students from Bethel University who recentlytook an interim trip to Kenya. Only one person, who gave three weeks of her time to lead these students, could accurately answer them.

Jessica Hasslen is a missionary living in Ngong, Kenya and currently is the program coordinator for Maarifa, a program that empowers Kenyan youth living with HIV/AIDS. The students that spent January in Kenya were placed in her care, and she acted as the Kenyan trip liaison and advisor.

Hasslen is originally from Minnesota and has a background in journalism, but having spent most of her time in Kenya since 2001, Hasslen was able to successfully navigate the Bethel group through media houses and newsrooms, church services, host family stays and city markets.

Hasslen said she has wanted to work in Africa for as long as she can remember.

Upon first arriving in Kenya, she worked many small odd jobs, including at a non-profit called Give Us Wings. Based in St. Paul, this organization helps poverty stricken families in Kenya and Uganda to be self-sufficient and build lives for themselves.

She taught English to a group of Maasai adults in their village in the Rift Valley, and individually facilitated the building of a school. “It was hard, but it made me realize that I can do things outside my comfort zone,” she said.

While working for Give Us Wings, Hasslen met brothers Elijah, Jacob and Zach. “They’re like my siblings now,” she said. Her “Kenyan brothers” currently own The Last Moran, a restaurant, hostel and conference center, and Elijah said he owes Hasslen a lot of credit.

“She was the inspiration for this place,” he explained. “She has a talent for taking something small and multiplying it to benefit the largest number of people.”

Her passion for not only aid but also transformation has manifested itself in many success stories throughout the years. Hasslen tells the story of Sauda, a woman who received help through one of the programs and was able to maximize the aid she received—one goat—into 16 goats and plenty of food to feed her six children.

“This is what it’s all about: giving people a boost and watching what they do with it,” Hasslen said. “Now she has made something of her life. She had so little, but she has done something with it.”

Helping people make the best of their situations takes many forms for Hasslen. In the past 13 years, she has fostered three Kenyan children, two teenage girls, one with a baby, who she sees as her Kenyan granddaughter. They
are all currently living with her. She explains that the process seemed obvious, if not automatic. “I didn’t think it through, but I knew it was right,” she said.

Hasslen is currently starting her own project through Africa Inland Church to aid Kenyans living with HIV/AIDS. The program, called Maarifa (a Swahili word that means a plan to overcome a difficulty) is still in the beginning phases. It is designed to give spiritual, emotional and life skills to those involved so they can be self-sufficient and educated on living with the illness.

“She is good at getting people to hope in the reality that things aren’t as bad as they seem,” Elijah said.

“It’s scary,” Hasslen admitted. “I know it’s a good idea but it’s bigger than anything I’ve ever done before.” She explained that though she has no medical training, she finds creative ways to use the skills she does have with writing training manuals and plans for the project, and maximizing the skills others possess.

“I want to be a part of educating people on how to be healthy on their own,” she said. The team hopes to have a written curriculum, trained staff and a fully running program in at least two cities by October.

Hasslen has identified independence and separation from her old lifestyle as benefits of working in Kenya, and she says she is spiritually thriving here. When asked the best result she has seen come out of her work, she cannot seem to name just one.

“There are so many things,” she said. “You just see God working everywhere. And it’s not what you do, it’s the way that things change you.”

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