South Fayette grad gives back so others can 'HEAL'
Cara Lyons, South Fayette High School Class of 2014, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in April with a degree in religious studies and minor in neuroscience and is taking a gap year prior to applying to various physician assistant programs by working at Washington Hospital.
A chance noticing of a small sign at Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning that read “Objects in the mirror are more beautiful than they appear” came at a critical moment when Lyons was receiving treatment for an eating disorder at nearby UPMC. The sign was sponsored by Project HEAL. She began to research the mission of the organization and knew she had to get involved once she was stronger in her own recovery. Once she was a college student, she began volunteering with the Pitt chapter of Project HEAL, helping with advocacy and fundraisers. By the end of her freshman year, she was asked to take over as chapter leader, a position she stayed in until graduation.
Project HEAL is a national nonprofit that provides mentorship, prevention and support to those suffering from an eating disorder. It was founded in 2008 by Kristina Saffran and Liana Rosenman, who met in treatment for anorexia and wanted to raise money for others suffering from such disorders who were unable to afford treatment due to insurance reasons.
In the past 10 years, Project HEAL has sent more than 80 applicants to treatment through its grant program that awards scholarships for all levels of care. They also have established 49 regional and university-based chapters. In 2017, they expanded the mission to make a larger impact in the community by strengthening early intervention and recovery support through Communities of HEALing, a peer mentorship program.
This new program provides weekly support groups and 1:1 mentorship for those newly out of treatment. The groups are open to anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder, regardless of age, gender or race, and are facilitated by recovered people who undergo training. The 1:1 peer mentorship program pairs a mentee who has stepped down from a higher level of eating disorder treatment (hospitalization, residential, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, etc.) with a peer who has recovered from their eating disorder and can offer support and guidance from their own experiences.
The University of Pittsburgh chapter was started in 2012 as a small organization that focused primarily on raising awareness and has since grown into being a prominent face of eating disorder awareness and prevention in the Pittsburgh area.
“To me and countless others, Project HEAL is a voice of hope and reassurance that full recovery is possible,” Lyons said. She now acts as a Communities of HEALing mentor.
She also finds time to work with Jamghat, a non-government organization based in Delhi, India, that operates a girls’ home, a boys’ home, a free day care center for street children and a vocational training unit. She travels each year to Delhi to volunteer and assist with office duties.
She also helps to host Dhirana, a classical Indian dance competition that takes place each spring at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. Teams come from across the country to compete and all ticket sales go toward benefiting the Birmingham Free Clinic in Pittsburgh’s South Side. With childhood friends who were Indian, she grew up immersed in the culture and finds this is also a way to give back to the community in a more sustainable method.
For more information on Project HEAL, visit www.theprojectheal.org .
Charlotte Smith is a Tribune-Review contributing writer. You can reach Charlotte at 724-693-9441 or email@example.com.