An Interview with Laura Collins
Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, our beloved Executive Director and the Founder of F.E.A.S.T. and the Around the Dinner Table Forum (ATDT), has shared with us that she is ready to hand over the leadership of F.E.A.S.T. to a new volunteer Executive Director (see story on our search process for a new leader in this issue). Laura will be moving into a new role leading our policy efforts. The Board of Directors
has been preparing for this transition and recently our Board Chair, Sarah Krevans, had a chance to interview Laura about her incredible accomplishments and contributions.
Sarah: Laura, tell us how you got started as an advocate--was ATDT and F.E.A.S.T. your first advocacy effort?
Laura: My parents raised me with a strong sense of socialresponsibility. I did my share of sit-ins and volunteering for causes all my life. But I have never been quite so moved to action as when I realized that families all over the world were suffering -- and patients dying -- for lack of good information about treatment of eating disorders. At first I thought writing about it would be enough, but I came to see that we needed a community, and organization, to truly bring about change.
Sarah: We know you are a writer and a journalist--was it hard to write about something as personal as your daughter's illness in your book "Eating
with Your Anorexic"
Laura: Deciding to be public in this way has to be very carefully considered. Once you put your story out there to strangers you cannot take it back or control it. A writer is making decisions not just for herself but for family, friends, and the community. I don't regret it, but it has been a challenge.
Sarah: What gave you the idea to start an on-line forum to support otherparents? Were you surprised at its growth and the depth of response?
Laura: When our daughter was ill I had two strong desires: to get information and hope. The only online forum I could find had too little of both. Starting a forum for these new ideas and attitudes about parents felt like giving a gift to those coming after us. At first it was just a message or two a week -- the growth has been astounding to me, and humbling. The moderator team evolved and developed over time and weathered many storms: fights, ideological rifts, management changes, and even deaths. But it has also provided life-altering support and information to families who have no other such access.
I get letters and emails every week thanking us for what we do. They often have photos attached -- of graduations and weddings and even newborn babies. It is an indescribable feeling to know that we've played a role in helping a family get there. These families are amazing!
Sarah: You have grown F.E.A.S.T. from an idea to an international non-profit with a distinguished group of advisors, nearly 2,000 members and a broad impact on families. Often parents comment that they feel the Forum and F.E.A.S.T. helped to save their child's life. What work do you think is left un-done?
Laura: Left undone? Well, I've got a long list! I'd like to see a worldwide network of families on the ground to support families at first diagnosis with good local information and a strong sense of supported optimism. I also feel we have not been effective at pressing the professional community to establish standards and accountability around eating disorder treatment. Finally, I'd like F.E.A.S.T. to be obsolete. If the professional world, the advocacy world, the public, and the media adopted our principles as normal and expected then we could all work more effectively together. As long as our principles are controversial, we're still needed.
Sarah: If you had to give one piece of advice to whoever succeeds you as Executive Director what would it be?
Laura: Kindness. The most effective thing I try to do daily is remain kind despite seeing families suffering so needlessly, patients going without the care they need, and harmful myths that still have such power. This job brings pressure from all sides on very emotional issues. Being kind is difficult but equally important with allies and foes.
Sarah: You have assembled an Advisory Board of some of the most respected clinicians and researchers in the field. What would you like to say to our Advisory Board besides a giant Thank You?
Laura: Our Advisors are essential to our mission. They lend us their wisdom, their perspectives, and their reputations. We don't take any of that for granted. Our organization has taken unpopular stands and challenged some deeply held beliefs about causation and effective treatment: our Advisors show a extraordinary courage and generosity by supporting us. They are also the people that give me the most hope for the future of the field.
Sarah: One of the things that makes F.E.A.S.T. unusual is that we are an all volunteer organization supported entirely by individual donations. Why should parents or others reading this article get involved as volunteers or donors to F.E.A.S.T.?
Laura: None of this happens without other parents stepping up to help, and it can be very healing to pay it forward a bit. We are still quite small and there is an enormous unmet need. Each volunteer and every donation have a great impact.
Sarah: You are moving into a new role as volunteer Policy Director; tell us what you hope to accomplish?
Laura: This is a good time for me to step back and take more advisory role. We have had an impact and we have momentum: I love the F.E.A.S.T. community and look forward to supporting and cheering for the next era of leadership while continuing to provide advice on policy and strategic direction
Sarah: Laura, I know I speak of our entire Board, for all of the thousands of families you have already helped and for the ones who will be helped in the future when I say thank you: thank you for your vision, your compassion, your courage and your leadership. We are very grateful.