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Buffalo Wellness bridges gap between traditional, holistic health

Rebecca Lesniak knows what it’s like to struggle with Crohn’s disease and essential tremors, give birth to twins prematurely, undergo a hysterectomy. She’s been through divorce. Been laid off from a good job. Had to declare bankruptcy.

Such a series of unfortunate events can put you into a deep physical and emotional pit.

It also can force you to find ways to dig out.

“Everything lines up the way it’s supposed to, not the way we want it,” said Lesniak, a reiki master, life mapping coach, and executive director of the Buffalo Wellness Center.

The nonprofit group, pushing into its fourth year, isn’t really a center at all. Its an all-volunteer effort led by leaders in the Western New York health and teaching fields who aim to bridge the gap between traditional and holistic health – and help others dig out of the holes that can come with sickness and chronic diseases.

Grants, fundraising events and donations fuel its work, which includes covering the costs of massage therapy, mindfulness training, education and other supports that insurance companies often do not. It holds yoga and other classes, as well as special events. And it provides a variety of health information on its website,

[RELATED STORY: Nursing specialist taps into holistic medicine]

Leaders of the Buffalo Wellness Center include from left, Rebecca Lesniak, Tara Maj and Rob Jones. The nonprofit runs classes and programs out of the Breast Cancer Network of Western New York headquarters in Depew, including some in the community kitchen where they are pictured. Jones is executive director of the Breast Cancer Network.

The organization has lost two of its leaders since if formed in 2014. Both died from cancer, including Elizabeth Diamond, whose friends, Laura and Ric Ruffino of Orchard Park, offered to raise her four daughters in a gesture that made national news in 2015. Leaders who remain include Board President Jennifer Jennings, a family nurse practitioner, university professor and owner of Cardea Health Integrative in Cheektowaga; Vice President Tara Maj, a teacher in the Buffalo Public Schools Virtual Pathways Program; Taryn Bunn, a software specialist; and Rob Jones, executive director of the Breast Cancer Network of Western New York.

The Breast Cancer Network has agreed to allow Buffalo Wellness to hold classes in its Depew headquarters. The 3,600-square-foot building, which opened at Walden Avenue in 2010, includes a large space for meetings and classes, a community kitchen, a room for support meetings, and Lesniak’s favorite spot: an almost all-white meditation room, tucked into a corner.

Lesniak, 39, of Lancaster, holds a bachelor’s degree in education and master’s in educational technology from SUNY Buffalo State. She and her fiance, Nicolai Roussev, a Lackawanna firefighter, have two children, Maya and Charles, 4, “my miracle dragons, born at 28 weeks,” their mother said.

Q. You say losing your job as a technology specialist at a Buffalo charter school and your health scares changed your life. When was the turning point?

When I was in Epona Ridge Sacred You Academy in Asheville, N.C. in 2009. I had time for myself. ... I studied yoga, meditation and reiki. It opened me to understanding my body in a way of being in control all the way down to breathing, to feel a certain energy of the people around me. It helped me in my teaching skills. Now reiki is taught to teachers and nurses. Reiki is a form of stress reduction, a Japanese technique that works. That escalated into what is now the Buffalo Wellness Center. I saw that there was such a need for people who were dealing with many diseases or illness who couldn’t afford services that made them feel good. They were going to Roswell and getting their medications and conventional medicine but they needed something for their spirit, something to keep them going. Sometimes I talked with my clients in a different way, about life, death.

Q. What is life mapping?

It’s making people look at their past as a path to take them to their future. You have to look into the past to know what you want to change, what was good, what wasn’t good.

Q. What is the Buffalo Wellness mission?

To help individuals live healthier, one body at a time. Living healthy means in mind, body and spirit. Our purpose is to raise the spirit of people on a different emotional level so they can consciously see what they’re doing on an unconscious level. That’s what mindfulness is.

Q. What are some of the tools you’re using?

One of the things is to pay for integrative services. We give them a juicer or a blender. We help provide produce. We want to do more of that this year. The BoGo Bunch Foundation (founded in 2015 by Buffalo Sabres defenseman and his wife, Bianca) – which recently put on Casino for a Cause – just heard about our mission and is supporting our juicer fund. What we’ve noticed is that many of the people we help need more support than a massage once a week and a juicer. They need educational support, so we’ve allowed them to come to some of our classes for free. On our blog, we have posts written by all types of educators in the community, motivational speakers in the area. ... We’ve done some work with Change MS and, of course, the Breast Cancer Network.

Q. Talk about some upcoming events.

We have a Glow Yoga event from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Jan. 27  on the third floor of 500 Seneca St.; you can buy tickets on our website. Right now, we’re working with Kaely’s Kindness, which helps teen girls who have cancer. They’re coming in for a 12-week program and we’re going to teach them mindfulness training and movement. We’ll teach them how to cook healthy recipes.

Q. So you’re helping people plug into integrative services where you can but also stepping back to provide more education?

We’re pushing into Lackawanna and Buffalo schools slowly with support, teaching teachers mindfulness so they can keep doing their job in a healthy way so they can continue to give. We would like to do that later in the hospitals. We just started going to farmers’ markets last year to give out our “Live Healthier” bracelets and hand out some guides. ... One of the big things we want to push is working with the holistic health practitioners. If you take every practitioner – say every massage therapist – in Buffalo, if they gave us four massages, do you know how many people we could touch?

Q. How are you using the space at the Breast Cancer Network?

We’re provided with a space to grow individuals who are dealing with individuals so they can talk freely and learn. We’re looking at more wellness conferences come 2018 but right now we’re doing classes for nonprofits. They come to us and if they want a program built for them, we build it. The UB engineering school will be using the kitchen here to learn with one of our local chefs about healthier ways of eating quick meals on a tight budget. They’ll also get some mindfulness training.

Q. Are the trainings and classes given at a modest rate?

The majority of those for the nonprofits are at a discount rate and paid through grants. We’ve supplied two years to Kaely’s Kindness for their programs. We collaborated on this with a Wilson Foundation grant. (“We’re not competing with anyone,” Maj added. “If someone can do it better, someone can go there. We’re trying to collaborate.”)

Q. When it comes to the general wellness of Western New York, what are our strengths? What are our challenges?

One of our greatest strengths is that we do help people. We are the City of Good Neighbors. I’ve seen that over and over again, especially with Elizabeth Diamond, and our growth. What do we need to get a hold of? We don’t always have the right answers. Doctors are not gods, nor are we. We cannot look to anyone else to solve our problems but we have to support each other. We also have to understand that things sometimes are a business and not always designed to help you. I see that in loose terms because there are so many professional out there - but so many scams out there. That’s what angers me.

Holistic medicine took a long time to get here. Integrative medicine is here but it’s argued. People need to see that we can work together. We’re very complementary.


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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