WASHINGTON -- David Nam and Ashira Lavine met at a yoga studio in West Virginia. Fast friends, they realized a love of yoga wasn't all they shared.  

They partnered to build the "Wheel Well Project,"  which teaches yoga and bike building to at-risk youth.

The Wheel Well Project combines yoga with bike building to teach kids life skills
Ashira Lavine and David Nam

"We both knew we wanted to help people," said Lavine, a former federal agent who has logged time at more than one US agency investigating crimes.  

Lavine found her inspiration to help others through her own traumatic life experiences. 

The criminal behavior expert revealed she had been sexually abused as a child, then again decades later by a colleague at a government agency.  

She said her darkest hours now form the bedrock for her new life and business.  

"I created Mind Body Fusion to help people heal."

Ashira Lavine's homepage
Ashira Lavine

Although she's not ready to publicly disclose the agency where she experienced an alleged rape by a senior male colleague, she said her path of embracing a robust yoga and meditation practice has given her the inner peace to move forward and to teach others how to do the same.

Her friend David Nam's story is similar in that his personal pain led him first to darkness, then to a realization that he could use his difficult life experiences to help other people.  He said his struggles began after his family emigrated to Virginia from South Korea in the 1970s when he was five years old.

"I didn't feel like I fit in. I felt different."

Father & son
Father and son
David Nam

He said it was a very different time and that as a kid he didn't know how to deal with racial insults.

"I became destructive.  And my parents didn't know what to do.  I think it's hard on kids whose parents don't even speak the language."

He later discovered cycling along with a sense of freedom and ultimately a career path.  

His journey included working as a manager and lead bike mechanic for a Georgetown bike shop where he was mentored by President George W. Bush's bike mechanic.  

"He taught me so much. I try to bring that spirit of generosity and mentor-ship to the kids I teach."

Life was good for Nam. Then, just like his friend and business partner, Lavine, life sucker-punched him.

"The hardest thing I've ever gone through was the death of my sister, Mia.  We were best friends. You never get over it.  But you learn how to deal with it. To accept your new normal."

The longtime DC bike mechanic said the death of his sister was beyond difficult.

"I felt alone and isolated. I eventually realized the way out was to surround myself with my community--my biking community.  My family and friends."

David and Mia
David with his "best friend," his sister Mia.
David Nam

It was during this period when he decided to dedicate a part of his life to helping young people. So he created a nonprofit, Happy Joyous and Freewheeling (HJ&F).  

Nam said HJ&F teaches young people not only how to ride and rebuild bikes but other lessons as well.

"They learn teamwork. Being a part of something bigger -- the cycling community. Which builds self-esteem.  And we hire many of the people we help. One of my former students is now a bike store manager at City Bikes in Tenleytown."

Fast forward a few years, during a weekend at his West Virginia cabin, Nam dropped in to a local yoga studio.  It was then and there that he met Lavine. Soon thereafter, the two became friends and began to conceptualize their joint venture, the "Wheel Well Project." 

The story of the Wheel Well Project took at least one more important twist. Several years after meeting Nam in West Virginia, Lavine had no idea she'd soon meet yet another new friend, Marne Keller.  

This time Lavine's serendipitous new friendship moment happened in Nosara, Costa Rica where Lavine was teaching at a yoga retreat and Keller was a student.

Shortly thereafter, Keller encouraged Lavine to apply for a grant from her family's foundation, the JJ Keller Foundation.  

"We usually focus on families and organizations in Wisconsin but I knew this exception made sense," explained Keller, who was in DC for the launch of the Wheel Well Project.

Marne Keller and Ashira Lavine
Making friends in Nosara, Costa Rica
Ashira Lavine
The JJ Keller Foundation
The Keller family's foundation has grown to over $200 million.
Marne Keller-Krikava

The Keller foundation awarded a grant to get the Wheel Well foundation its start. 

Although it's in its infancy, the friends are hopeful.  For kids who are interested, Nam and Lavine said they not only get to learn the skills--they also get a few gifts to take home at the end of the five day workshop.

"We give them a yoga mat," said Lavine as she grinned.  Nam, the bike mechanic who found peace on two wheels, said he hopes his students might also experience the sense of freedom cycling brought into his life.

"We're giving each student their own bike to take home with them."

The pair hopes to offer more workshops over the summer.  

For more information on how to help or if you know of a young person who may benefit visit Wheel Well Project.

Marne Keller, Ashira Lavine, and David Nam
Launching the Wheel Well Project in Northwest DC at CityBikes Tenleytown
Alec Schreck