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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

MAKING IT HAPPEN

Health food entrepreneur boosts success

By Carter Hammett
Special to The Toronto Sun


It's a typical day at Boost Health Store: busy. Owner Sera Dafla, in between a barrage of phone calls, interacts with customers who wander into the store, addle up to the cash register and ask questions about appropriate supplements.

One person has heard about an enzyme to help temper her autistic son's hyperactivity. Someone else needs information on weight loss. Yet another person has a question about the east African plant, teff. At every turn, another question. In gentle yet firm tones, she tosses off information and friendly suggestions without batting an eyelash.
As owner of Boost Health Store, Sera Dafla addresses clients' concerns on everything from autism to weight loss to using traditional plants for treatment.


Looking slightly frazzled, but glowing, Dafla sits down for a moment to catch her breath. Right now is probably the happiest period of her life, but if you asked her two years ago, the Ethiopian-born entrepreneur would probably have told you she had no idea what a new life in Toronto had in store for her.

Back then, she found herself wandering around a brand new city, marveling at its diversity, but overwhelmed by a lack of direction in her life.

Eventually finding work as a community nutritionist with a non-profit agency, she thought her life was slowly finding the structure she felt it lacked. Until one day, her husband Sal came home and presented her with an idea.

The idea was to take over a vacant space at Bloor and Dundas streets and open a health-food store. At first she resisted the concept, but gradually seeping into her consciousness like a flower waiting to bloom, she agreed.

"It got to a point where I couldn't stop thinking about the idea; I got so excited, I couldn't sleep, and the idea of having a place to do nutritional consulting and do my own thing began to sound too good," she says.

Quickly, the idea began to take shape. Bolstered by a loan from her family, the couple tapped into friends for cash donations, milked their credit cards and dipped into their savings, eventually scraping enough together to realize their dream. Boost Health Store opened its doors in June, 2002.

"The name Boost comes from the idea that better health starts with boosting the entire system," Dafla says.

Indeed, the store goes beyond mere retail services to prove the point, offering a range of services including nutritional consulting, monthly health workshops, walking clubs and treatments from onsite holistic therapists.

Her interest in health stretches back to childhood. "My mother's side of the family had a lot of weight problems, especially my grandmother, and from a young age, I felt drawn to helping her lose weight."

One of seven children, Dafla grew up in a fairly privileged household in Addis Ababa, where her father had a successful administrative career working for Ethiopian Airlines.

That all ended in the mid-1970s when the Communists rose to power. Almost overnight, life changed. Dafla's family, some of whom were politically active, voiced opposition. Her sister and several uncles were jailed for years, and her father was forced to sell their home, moving the family to a more remote area.

But political strife continued, with the Eritrean fight for independence, followed by drought. The family finally fled Ethiopia for Italy in 1984. A year later they moved to Canada, settling in Edmonton.

"Three weeks after we got there, it was -30'C," she remembers. "We didn't go to school for three days, until the principal asked us where we had been. We said it was too cold, and he replied, 'You'd better get used to it, because it's like this for eight months of the year.'

We started to cry at the prospect of life in this new place." But the family remained in Edmonton for 11 years and Dafla eventually enrolled in the University of Alberta, graduating with a degree in food science and nutrition in 1994.

It has been nutrition and physical well-being that have been the key drivers of her commitment to societal health ever since.

Dafla dreams one day of opening her own holistic health centre, but knows that reality is still several years away.

Meanwhile, she has several plans in store for Boost. A weekly walking group led by professional consultants who will discuss health issues will soon be launched, as will a Web site (www. boosthealth.ca) and a newsletter.

Perhaps most importantly, Boost Health also creates a forum for her to share her first love: nutritional consulting.

"When someone comes into the shop to ask about supplements or nutritional information, it feels like magic to be able to help them.

About a week ago, this woman came into the centre and had a horrible cough. She was a teacher who made her living talking, so for her it was pretty rough.

She'd tried everything to shake it, but couldn't, so I suggested some remedies for her.

A few days ago, she came back in to give me a hug, and say 'thanks.' That sort of thing just makes your day."

For more information about services offered by Boost Health, visit the Web site, or contact Sera Dafla at 416-530-0056.

(Linda White (linda.white@rogers.com) is a freelance writer based in Brooklin, Ont.)



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