In a little building at the center of the village of Liverpool, there’s a quiet revolution going on.
Jodie Wilson, executive director of Ophelia’s Place, and Mary Ellen Clausen, founder of the center, are working to change the world’s concept of beauty and providing a safe haven for those struggling with and recovering from eating disorders and their loved ones. The center operates numerous support groups (a newly added adolescent and family group is running this summer), in addition to an intensive outpatient program run with the aid of The Upstate New York Eating Disorder Service (unyeds.com).
“Part of our mission is about changing the conversation around beauty and health, challenging society’s narrow definition of those terms, and looking at how that drive for perfection leads to the negative attitudes and behaviors that often develop into eating disorders,” Wilson said. “I often see people channeling their dislike of themselves into a dislike of their physical bodies. We often believe that by changing our bodies, we can change how we feel about ourselves. How sad that we spend countless hours worrying about a number on a scale or the size of our clothing, when we can be connected to the larger community in a way that gives our lives meaning and purpose.”
Wilson knows all too well the high toll an eating disorder (ED) can take; she’s a survivor, one of millions across the nation. Clausen knows it, too; she founded Ophelia’s Place after watching her two teenage daughters, now grown, struggle with ED. The peak onset of eating disorders occurs during puberty and the late teen/early adult years, but symptoms can occur as young as kindergarten and as late as middle age. More than one in three normal dieters progresses to pathological dieting. The most quoted study on the subject states that nearly 10 million females and 1 million males in the U.S. are battling eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, while millions more suffer from binge eating disorder. Unfortunately, those figures are woefully out of date; they come from a study done in the mid-1990s.
“We want to change culture! That sounds impossible, but it can happen, one conversation at a time,” Wilson said. “We have collected hundreds of quotes from Café at 407 patrons about real beauty, and those quotes give me hope that change is happening.”
In order to effect that change, Ophelia’s Place is once again partnering with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) as a network member so that the smaller organization can better spread its message.
“NEDA is the conduit, so to speak, for all of us to connect,” Wilson said. “Why reinvent the wheel? If another agency has a good idea that fits in our community, we share it and so many more can benefit.”
Next Saturday, August 24, in conjunction with Ophelia’s Place, NEDA will hold its second annual Syracuse area walk at Longbranch Park in Liverpool. Registration begins at 9 a.m., with a special kick-off at 10 a.m. Live music, raffles, vendors and a food truck, along with special guest, Jenni Schaefer, author, speaker and eating disorder survivor, will be featured. Schaefer is author of “Life Without Ed,” “Goodbye Ed, Hello Me” and her latest release, “Almost Anorexic.” Schaefer will also be featured at a pre-walk coffeehouse talk at 7 p.m. Friday at the Café at 407, 407 Tulip St., Liverpool.
This local walk is one of more than 50 walks taking place throughout the year nationwide, C.J. Redfern, national walks director for NEDA, told the Star-Review last year. The walks, which started in 2009, are critical because they not only raise money for NEDA as well as Ophelia’s Place, but they raise awareness of their joint mission.
“NEDA walks serve as a catalyst to raise awareness in local communities about eating disorders,” Redfern said. “For far too long, people with eating disorders have felt alone. No one talked about these illnesses. These walks are bringing the illness into the light, and [it] makes it that much easier for family and friends to come forward to support their loved one or friend. [The money raised through these walks is] used to fund our programs that promote awareness and prevention, as well as advocate for policy changes and more funding for eating disorders research.”
Wilson said it was essential to educate the community about eating disorders because so many people remain ignorant about the damage they can cause.
“After 10 years of working in this field, I am still surprised by the amount of education that is still needed around eating disorders,” she said. “As our walk committee members contacted community partners, they found people who still either do not know about eating disorders or who do not believe they are a serious health risk. So, walks like this help educate the public, but they also give individuals and families a way to come together in community and honor the struggle, to feel supported, and to feel hope.”
Working together with NEDA’s team, Wilson and group of very committed volunteers pulled together this weekend’s event. At press time, teams and individuals participating in the walk had raised more than $9,000. The money raised will be split between the two organizations, with 60 percent going directly to Ophelia’s Place and 40 percent going back to NEDA to support its programming nationwide.
The hope is that walks like this one at Longbranch Park and across the country and the awareness campaigns that they spark will create that culture change Wilson mentioned.
“I want people to know that they can make a difference,” Redfern said. “Although eating disorders can be life threatening, they are treatable, especially when we steer people to help early. By registering for a NEDA walk, you are joining thousands of other people and organizations around the country in support of our mission. Everybody knows somebody who has struggled with body image issues or an eating disorder. If we stand together, and walk together, we can bring help to those struggling and their loved ones, as well as begin a movement to change the way beauty is perceived and revolutionize what is considered a healthy body image.”
If you would like to participate or make a donation towards this year’s walk, email Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.