By Lillian Lemu

As a young girl growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa, Stephanie Lumu dreamed about joining the Women’s National Basketball Association. And when she moved to Lewiston with her family in 2016, she was determined to make that dream come true. She enrolled at Southern Maine Community College and joined the women’s basketball team, but soon realized that between full-time work, school, and basketball, she was trying to do too many different things. Ultimately, Lumu decided to stop chasing her dream of becoming a professional athlete. But her passion for sports and wellness drove her to develop her next dream, which is to become a certified weight loss coach and personal trainer. “Call me Coach Steph!” Lumu is fond of saying.

Lumu’s father’s death in 2017 from health conditions motivated her to use her education to help the immigrant community with health and wellness. “All the knowledge I have gained, I could have used to help him with his nutrition and exercise,” she explained. “I owe my dream to my dad, who taught me ‘go gain knowledge and use it to educate people around you.’ ”

She is concerned about a lack of education about nutrition in the African community in Maine, particularly regarding portion control, moderation, and healthy food options and preparation. Many Afican immigrants suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol as a result, she said, and most people turn to medication to solve their health problems. “Medications are OK,” she said, “but ultimately – Are you moving? Are you eating right? Are you exercising a little bit?”

Affordability is a huge issue for the immigrant community. “A lot of African people are on assistance, and a lot of people don’t know that in the U.S., foods are manufactured and processed,” she said. “It’s not like back home where food comes literally from the ground.”

People who are on limited budgets or who receive government assistance may make food choices that may negatively impact their health. For example, canola oil is cheaper than olive oil and comes in a bigger container. But many don’t know about its high amount of saturated fat, or the effects it will have on cholesterol. This sort of scenario troubles Lumu and has led her to become a bridge to help inform and educate her community on what they should put on their plates. “The government may not care what you put on your plate, but I do,” she said.

The government may not care what you put on your plate, but I do.

Currently in the process of launching her own health and fitness business in Lewiston, she hopes to provide educational nutrition workshops and fitness training services to women. She will also provide guidance on healthy shopping, and plans to launch an activewear line. In the future, she hopes to expand her services to the Portland area and beyond, taking her business to other states, and maybe opening up her own gym someday.

Many of the coaches and trainers in Maine are English speaking, and the language barrier is currently a barrier for immigrants. But Lumu speaks French and Lingala, as well as English. “If you have someone who speaks your language and who you can understand, then you have someone who can literally guide you,” she said.

She hopes to simplify nutritional and fitness information for her clients so they can take small steps toward creating a healthier lifestyle. There is a misconception of what exercise is, she said. “Just the idea of going to the gym and running on the treadmill scares people. But I say, ‘OK, just take a 20- or 30-minute walk a day, and that’s it!’ ”
Lumu had hoped her business would launch this summer, but financial constraints have pushed the date back. At the moment, she is working with clients online. She looks forward to becoming one of the first female Congolese coaches with her own business address in Maine. “People are waiting on me,” she chuckled.

A motivational speaker, she also works as a mistress of ceremonies and serves as an interpreter for her local church. She plans to continue her education at the University of Southern Maine for a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership.

Although many people use the expression, “The sky’s the limit,” Lumu believes she can go beyond the sky. “When you offer a solution, people will come to you,” she said. “Look for a need and be the response.”