It always makes my heart all warm and fuzzy to hear about people doing incredible things for others. It’s a nice reminder that it’s not all bad out there in this huge world of ours, which can be so, so easy to forget.
This is exactly what Liana and Kristina, co-founders of Project HEAL, do. Project HEAL is a non-profit organization which sends sufferers of eating disorders to treatment that they would have otherwise been unable to afford. What makes this whole thing even cooler is that Project HEAL was born out of their own struggles with eating disorders, and while they were both in high school, no less.
In advance of their sixth annual anniversary gala on June 20th, I got to chat with Liana about all the wonderful things they’ve been doing.
NYMM: I just wanted to start by getting a bit of background information: what Project HEAL is, what its mission is, what it aims to do, etc.
Liana: Sure! Do you want the long or the short version?
NYMM: Give me the long one!
Liana: Okay, well, I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was 12 years old, and I went into treatment when I was in tenth grade, which is how I met Kristina, who was in ninth grade at the time. I was there for about a month, and I wasn’t really making any progress, so my parents took me out of the program.
About a year later we reconnected, which started as more of a support group with the people we were in treatment with – once a month we would go out for dinner and make it recovery oriented and support each other. It started off as about 12 or 15 girls, and it slowly dwindled down to just the two of us. So our friendship really grew from there. People always ask us if it’s a good thing for people to have a relationship with those they met in treatment, and honestly, our relationship is the exception rather than the rule.
For some reason our friendship was just very different, and we really helped each other reach a full recovery, which is very unique. But through our friendship we started talking about the flaws in the system and the things that we experienced and the things that we didn’t like, and all of our conversations led back to three things, the first being that so many people want to get treatment but are turned away because of insurance. Insurance rarely covers treatment for eating disorders, and the cost is upwards of $30,000 a month. So, normally when people get treatment, they do need to take out second mortgages on their house, or get other jobs, and you even hear of parents getting divorced because it’s so draining on the family, which is really upsetting to us.
The second thing is in therapy you learn all of these coping mechanisms and self-affirmations like “you’re beautiful” and “love yourself,” which is great, but when you go to high school, even your “normal friends” are dealing with these same issues and not feeling confident in themselves. You would hear people talk negatively about themselves in the bathroom or see people throw out their lunches, especially around prom season, and so these weren’t really helpful because these people don’t even feel good about themselves, so how are we supposed to?
And the third thing was there’s never this idea when you’re struggling with an eating disorder that full recovery is possible. You get stuck in this idea that you’re eating disorder is your only identity, and there [weren’t] that many stories when I was going through this about people that recovered and went on to do things that they wanted to do and lived a happy and healthy lifestyle outside of their eating disorder. So we really wanted to become those role models and show people that full recovery is something that’s possible and your life can be amazing when you leave your eating disorder behind.
So, as teenage girls we decided we wanted to do something. We had our first fundraiser three months after we came up with the idea and raised $14,000, and we sent our first person to treatment two weeks after that, and it kind of just grew from there. We filled out all the paperwork on our own and we really felt that power we had and the difference that we were making. We’re currently working on sending our eleventh applicant to treatment, and we have over 30 chapters across the US, Canada, and Japan that all work to spread our mission and fundraise. All of our applicants are incredible, and it’s definitely been growing significantly in the past two years.
NYMM: Wow. Well, I just want to personally congratulate you on starting this at such a young age. I’m sure you get that a lot, but I think that’s really inspiring.
Liana: Thank you. I really do believe that people do things for a reason. I really believe that I didn’t go through this for nothing, and I really enjoy what I do. If I could go back in time and choose to have or not have an eating disorder, I would always choose the life that I’ve lived just so I could help people have a little less suffering.
NYMM: So, how has Project HEAL changed in the past six years? How have things developed?
Liana: I would say that our mission has always stayed the same; it’s just that we’ve grown. Our chapters have grown, and the number of people we’ve reached has grown. We’ve always stayed very true to our three missions, and we will always stay true to those three things, but we’ve gotten more people involved. We’ve raised more money; we’ve been able to help more people, whether it’s through our actual scholarship, or whether it’s through things like being able to talk to other patients through our social media.
It’s been a great thing for us because even if we can’t help them financially, we can help them on a day-to-day basis. Kristina and I just graduated from college, and we always had a plan to hire someone once we did that.
Project HEAL has never paid anyone. All of our money has always gone directly to the patients in need, and any extra expenses have come out of our pockets, but Kristina and I can’t do this full time as our careers, and so we hired our new Executive Director in September.
NYMM: So what does she do on a day-to-day?
Liana: I mean, the business stuff and the day-to-day stuff is what Kristina and I never enjoyed, and our new Executive Director has a lot of business experience, so she’s been working on really holding every together, so that Kristina and I can focus on the part of Project HEAL that we really love, which is helping people.
NYMM: What are your goals for this event? What’s the perfect outcome?
Liana: Last year at our fifth annual event, we raised $50,000, so it would be amazing to raise $75,000.
I’m really excited for this event. We’re a part of an organization called the Resolution Project, who’s helping us to work on a project in Canada, and one of the people in the Resolution Project who is also on our Advisory Board, is really into event planning. So, Kelsey became our Event Planning Chair, and she has such a great vision.
We have a whole planning committee that meets every week to talk about it. We’ve probably put more hours into planning this event than any of our others. We’ve been doing a social media campaign where we ask people what suffering means to them, and we had over 300 pictures submitted, which we’ll be featuring at the event.
There will be various dessert stations, and we have Godiva, Doughnut Planet, and a bunch of others donating. We also have Benjamin O’Keefe and Brian Cuban emceeing the event, who are both so charismatic and funny. They both suffered from eating disorders, and there’s really no awareness of males and eating disorders, so it’s really exciting to have two recovered men hosting the event.
We’re also going to be having one of our applicants, who we just sent to treatment, speaking about her experiences, and a lot of our chapters are going to be coming in from all over the United States, so it’s kind of like one big family reunion. It’s going to be an incredible night, and a very uplifting and inspiring event.
NYMM: Yeah, that’s sounds like it’s going to be a very powerful and fun event! Is there a particular story or moment or applicant over the course of the past six years that has really stood out to you?
Liana: I mean, each of our applicants has their own story, and no two stories are the same. The girl who’s speaking at our event is one of the most kind-hearted and amazing people in the world, and after going through this, she’s thinking of going back to school to get a degree in psychology to help people with eating disorders.
One of our other applicants used to live in California, but she just moved to Australia to pursue her dream of having a music career, and she wouldn’t be able to travel around the world if she was stuck in her eating disorder.
There’s another story that comes to mind, actually. One day I was doing an event on Long Island and I found out that this little girl who was in third grade at the time read our brochure and thought, “I want to do something for this. I want to help.” So she made buttons and sold them at her school and raised $300.
She came to our event last year and was awarded the Youth Activist Award. She did it again this year and raised $500, and I think it’s going to become an annual thing, which is so incredible. She says that we inspire her so much, but I don’t think she realizes how much she’s inspiring me and everyone around her. Everyone always says that starting a non-profit in high school is so incredible and I’m just like, “Well look at this girl!”
NYMM: Wow, that’s one of the cutest stories I’ve ever heard. So, my final question for you is where do you see Project HEAL going from here?
Liana: I mean, our mission is always going to stay the same, I just think we’re going to be able to help more people. We want to have a chapter in all 50 states, as well as globally. The goal for Project HEAL has been to save as many lives as we can, and we are really going to continue to do that. Kristina and I also really want to open up a treatment center on Long Island.
Title and Body images by Sarah Holzberg