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Sound Health is a recurring series that airs twice each month on WGLT's Sound Ideas program.Support for Sound Health comes from Carle Health, bringing care, coverage, support, healthcare research and education to central Illinois and beyond.

New B-N nonprofit focuses on healthy body image and recovery from disordered eating

Hilary Pacha is the founder and executive director of the One Hope Project.
Hilary Pacha is the founder and executive director of the One Hope Project.

When Hilary Pacha decided to seek help for disordered eating several years ago, the advice she received from doctors was nothing she hadn't heard before: Eat right. Exercise.

"That wasn't the problem — I know how to eat right and exercise and I actually enjoy eating healthy, so to speak, so it just left me feeling very frustrated," she said. "When I finally found the doctor ... paired with a counselor who had some experience ... that translated well for me, that's when I finally felt this freedom. And I thought, 'Nobody should have to work this hard to find the help that they need.'"

Enter, several years later, One Hope Project.

Pacha founded the nonprofit in early 2020, right before pandemic-related shutdowns, which in hindsight was "a blessing in disguise."

"That allowed me time to lay a really strong foundation — things that I'm still building on," she said. "About a year and a half ago I started seeing clients and became a certified recovery coach, sort of like a life coach, but it's specific to eating disorders. That's when I started seeing all this change."

In 2022, Pacha said she worked with 28 clients, providing just under 230 hours of recovery coaching — enough for her to justify leaving the part-time job she at the time in order to give One Hope Project her full attention.

Pacah dropped by the WGLT studios recently to talk about the nonprofit that she expects will have a ribbon-cutting sometime next month.

WGLT: Is it just you, or do you have other folks you're working with?

Pacha: I did just take on a counseling intern, a social work grad student, and she has been super helpful so far. I've also worked with several dietetic interns ... (for) clients who maybe need some of that nutritional coaching or are ready for that piece of the recovery process.

"What we're lacking is recognizing that an eating disorder is a mental health issue and actually one of the most underfunded mental health disorders."
Hilary Pacha with One Hope Project

It's interesting: I feel like your personal background and your own knowledge ... helps you empathize, but at the same time, do you ever get ... a little exhausted with the topic or thinking about these issues constantly?

Pacha: Every so often I feel like I'm slipping myself or being triggered by something in somebody's journey, so I'm checking myself at times. That's the part that I think is hard — not really the repetitiveness. Even if you start to get weary, it's like clients will come with these amazing statements or "aha" moments and it keeps you going.

How do clients find you?

Pacha: We didn't really put ourselves out there too much, other than Facebook. Now we've just added Instagram. But really it was people Googling us, or the word-of-mouth taking off.

I actually had a Unit 5 school reach out to me last year — a counselor — and she was telling me about how they've just seen this huge uptick in eating disorders. She was like, 'I don't know what is going on. I could literally give you an office today for two days out of the week and just send in students one right after another.'

And I thought, 'This is just one school in this entire community. What is going on?' I knew how pervasive the problem was but maybe I wasn't ready to really realize how pervasive that problem is here and how important One Hope is.

Part of the reason I asked how people find you is because if you are experiencing (or seeing) disordered eating, you might not recognize it.

Pacha: That was part of my personal journey: It took me so long to get to the point of wanting to reach out, or wanting to get help. In a lot of ways, eating disorders are very hidden in our culture. One of those reasons is because people don't recognize it themselves. I was good at hiding it from other people and I almost hid it from myself. It really wasn't until I had my son that I realized, 'Oh, wow. This is actually a problem.'

I didn't have a name for it, initially, either — I think it's important for people to know that One Hope Project doesn't mean that people have to come in with an actual diagnosis of an eating disorder. Much like anything in our world these days, there's like a continuum, or a spectrum, so to speak.

Somebody who has unhealthy body image maybe has some disordered eating that disrupts their life a little bit, but not an actual, diagnosable eating disorder — we're still willing to work with them. Maybe they have a full-blown eating disorder or something in between — we're still willing to work with them because why not be proactive?

What's the most frustrating narrative about your work or the clients that you serve that you would like to see corrected, maybe?

Pacha: I would really love for people to see eating disorders as a mental health issue — because it is. A lot of times, I think there's that myth out there that it's a choice.

'She just wants to be skinny, so she's starving herself.'

A lie I believed myself was, 'I have no self-control, so I just eat because I'm sad,' or someone who's bulimic binges and throws up.

It's not that simple. It's not a choice that somebody can just ... turn on or off as they please. It's a diagnosable mental health disorder. As a culture and as a community, we've, over the years, gotten so good at recognizing mental health issues ... and that's fantastic. But what we're lacking is recognizing that an eating disorder is a mental health issue and actually one of the most underfunded mental health disorders.

That reminds me of the refrain that still exists, but I would like to think is less dominant today, that depression itself is a choice.

Pacha: It's very similar here. I want to shift that way of thinking. Just to give you an idea, a national survey was done and it estimated that 20 million women and 10 million men at some point will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. If you kind of extrapolate that down to local statistics... and how many people live in McLean County, you could actually fill Redbird Arena one and a half times with the amount of people that potentially will have an eating disorder.

It's so shocking when you have that kind of visual. I mean, we served 28 clients last year — or I did, personally, so that may not seem like a lot to some people, but I'm one person.

I had to refer several people away because I couldn't take any more clients — and we weren't even putting ourselves out there.

Do you find that your clients are mostly women or men, or is it a mix?

Pacha: Mostly women. I did serve two men last year.

Do you find that demographic is underrepresented in the people who are seeking out services for eating disorders?

Pacha: I absolutely do. Men have another set of ideal standards of what they should look like and what... being handsome or whatever you call it looks like to them. Sometimes we get in our own way and they're fighting that as well — not just women.

Is there anything else message-wise that you would want to make sure people know about One Hope Project?

Pacha: Just spreading the word that we're here to help. We don't promote diets. We promote intuitive eating and intuitive movement. I always tell my clients food is neither friend nor foe. It's fuel. It's made to enjoy and we do love to have food with friends and family and we can enjoy it, but it is just fuel. Offer yourself grace, reach out for help.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.