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Eating Disorder Recovery: Teenagers Form Successful Non-Profit Helping People Find Funding For Treatment

Eating Disorder Treatment Funding Help From Project Heal


Meet Kristina Saffran, who founded Project HEAL, an organization that helps people with eating disorders find funding for their treatment. That’s only half of the story. Kristina, together with her friend Liana Roseman (at left), a fellow eating disorder survivor, founded the organization when she was only 15 years old.

After she and Liana got Project HEAL off to a good start, Kristina finished her high school education, enrolled at Harvard University, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. In addition to her work with Project HEAL, Kristina continues to pursue her passion for helping others with eating disorders. She works as a research coordinator in Stanford University’s department of psychiatry. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology so she can treat others with eating disorders.

In an interview with Rise Up Eight founder Michael Nova, Kristina shares the incredible story of how she conquered her health challenges to help others in similar situations.


Can you please tell us more about how Project HEAL came to be?


Liana Rosenman and I created Project HEAL in 2008 at just 15 years of age. Liana and I had met in treatment for anorexia at age 13, where we became very close and helped each other recover. During our time in treatment, we saw countless individuals being kicked out of the program because insurance refused to continue paying for their treatment, and their family simply couldn’t afford to pay more.


There was also the absence of hope during this time, something that is crucial to recovery. That is why Project HEAL was created: to provide grants to those unable to afford to lifesaving treatment they need, to promote positive body image and self-esteem, and to serve as a testament that full recovery is possible.


You started the organization at 15 years of age?  That’s impressive. Many of our readers don’t realize the huge amount of work involved in setting up a nonprofit organization. What difficulties did you encounter starting up Project HEAL initially at such a young age, and how did you overcome those challenges?


Liana and I hosted our first fundraising gala at 15 years of age and raised 10K, which gave us momentum that we’d struck a nerve and had to keep going.  Part of our success has truly been “anorexia gone good.” We’ve channeled our type A, perfectionistic energy that typifies people with anorexia into creating a non-profit instead of harming ourselves–and working on something bigger than ourselves.


Additionally, we’ve worked incredibly hard and have not given up in the face of obstacles. We did not become successful overnight. The general rule of non-profits is: reach out 100 times, get 1 response. We knew to expect that, and were not disillusioned when people said “no,” and weren’t interested in helping us.


Ultimately, if you continue to put yourself out there and work hard, you’ll get a yes. And success begets success–as more people began to take an interest, our ratio of yeses to noes shifted. To me, grit is the most important quality in running a successful non-profit, and we’ve been very gritty.


One thing that has been particularly tough is trying to balance our passion for the cause (and wanting to help every single person who reaches out) vs. the realities of running a business. For example, when Liana and I started HEAL, we could legitimately say that 100% of the proceeds went to funding treatment grants–we had 0 overhead.


As we grew and added savvy business mentors to the team, they advised us that we needed to invest some money into growing the organization in order to help even more people. We’ve done that, and they were undoubtedly right, but part of me still cringes any time money is spent on anything other than treatment.


Another challenge has been maintaining our very personal touch with the grant recipients and chapters as we scale. We’ve found incredible volunteers to help us do this and maintain the strong personal connections.


We see that there are so many people involved in the organization: staff, boards and directors. How were you able to find the right people to work with? How were you able to enroll so many people into Project HEAL initially? 


We’re very selective when it comes to choosing individuals for our boards, staff, and even volunteers. We have a screening process we use for volunteers, to make sure they’re a good fit and share our vision and passion.


We just hired our first two full-time staff members. Both of them have been volunteering with us for quite some time and were chosen to become employees based on their professional background, the passion they have for our organization and our mission, and the spark we like to see in everyone who plays a role at Project HEAL. We armed our organization with some of the most brilliant minds in their respected fields, from a member on the board of directors, to a volunteer managing an Instagram account.


What is the recovery process like for someone with an eating disorder?


Recovery is one of the toughest things one will go through in life. There are times during recovery that you will want to throw in the towel and go back to your life of eating disorder behaviors. Everyone is different and has their own struggles during recovery, but some of the more common things that make recovery difficult are: the weight gain (so that your body can reach a healthy body weight), learning new coping skills, and essentially giving up a big part of your identity.


The mantra of my recovery was “fake it til you make it.” I will say, however, the difficult road to full recovery is so worth it. “My worst days in recovery are better than the best days in relap­­se.” ~Kate Le Page


What financial struggles and other challenge­­s do people with eating disorders face?


People with eating disorders face immense financial challenges. Inpatient treatment for an eating disorder can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 per day, with the average cost of a one-month stay being around $30,000. Individuals are often discharged way before they should be, from all levels of treatment, because their insurance will no longer cover their stay, and their families couldn’t afford to keep them in treatment. Furthermore, recovery is a long process, requiring specialist outpatient treatment. Oftentimes, insurance companies will not cover outpatient eating disorder specialists (therapists, nutritionists, psychiatrists), sending people into relapse.


How can people find help for their loved ones or themselves?


Reach out for help. We recommend first talking to your primary care physician, therapist, or another certified medical professional. They will help you to determine appropriate next steps to ensure recovery.


There is a plethora of resources available to those suffering online. Project HEAL lists helpful resources here, which include eating-disorder support, treatment programs, and other resources that will help you get started on the recovery journey.


The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) also offers some online resources, including an Online Eating Disorder Screening and an information and referral helpline.

How can families help their loved ones through the recovery process?


Learn how to communicate effectively. Ask your loved one how you can best support them, and what to avoid saying and doing. Do not comment on your loved one’s weight. Even comments like, “You look healthy,” or, “You look good,” can be triggering to those suffering. It’s best to avoid making comments on appearance altogether. Just letting your loved one know that you’re there for them through this process, that you love them, and you are willing to support in any way possible, is one of the best things you can do.


Family based treatment (FBT) is one of the most effective treatments for those suffering from eating disorders. The Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research at The University of California, San Diego leads one of the best family-based treatment programs in the country, where your family is immersed in the recovery program with you, arming themselves with knowledge, facts and how they can best support you as you continue to recover. These family-based programs are anywhere from five days to a few weeks.


How does Project HEAL help them conquer their challenges?


We’re proud to be the largest 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in the U.S. that provides grant funding for those suffering from eating disorders who are unable to afford treatment due to the severe lack of coverage insurance provides. We also promote healthy body image and self-esteem, and serve as a testament that full recovery is possible.


We’ve sent 63 applicants to various levels of treatment, and have directed countless other individuals to resources to find a level of care that maybe doesn’t require outpatient, but rather support in other ways.


Project HEAL’s social media channels are also a hub of inspiration, hope, and feel-good content. When Liana and I were in treatment, we lacked hope. Now that we’re recovered and on the other side of things, we want to provide that hope to sufferers, and let them know full recovery is possible.


Now personally, is there something that you would tell yourself or some kind of plan or ritual that you follow to get yourself to keep going, regardless of what happens?


As mentioned above, I’m a huge believer in “Fake it ‘Til You Make It.” Eating disorder recovery is particularly hard because the desire for recovery is ambivalence at best; you don’t necessarily want recovery. I eventually made the choice to recover because I didn’t want to live the rest of my life sick. But honestly, I was absolutely miserable throughout the whole recovery process. I felt really uncomfortable with myself and with my body.


But recovery is a long process where you kind of have to have blind faith and trust others and hope that it will get better. I really had to listen to the advice of my treatment team and follow all of the specifics that they planned…because I knew I couldn’t trust myself.


This mantra has served me well post-recovery, too. When I don’t feel like attending a dinner with friends that I know I’ll end up enjoying, when I’m nervous about going to a networking event, when I have a particularly hard project for Project HEAL that I’m not sure I will succeed at–I fake it til I make it. Confidence works this way, too.


What is your philosophy about overcoming challenges in life and the phrase, “fall down seven times, rise up eight”?


The most important quality in a leader is perseverance. We founded Project HEAL at 15 years of age, so we definitely had a lot of people questioning our credibility. But once you persevere at something in the face of obstacles and prove to people that you can make an impact, they start taking you seriously.


I’m also a strong believer in pursuing your passion, and being confident in yourself and your ability to actually effect change. Be nice to others. And work incredibly hard to make your dreams come true.


Certainly Kristina’s life and work exemplifies what “fall down seven times, rise up eight” means. Not only did she rise, but now she teaches others with eating disorders to “rise up eight times” with her.



We found this interesting article in Psychology Today that may be of interest as well. Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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