LIVERPOOL – MaryEllen Clausen first announced her retirement from Ophelia’s Place more than 10 years ago – on the cover of the first anniversary issue of Syracuse Women’s Magazine, no less – but she found herself unable to walk away from the Liverpool-based nonprofit she founded. Now, a decade later, she’s calling it quits for good.
“I feel like I’ve cried ‘wolf’ too many times,” she said.
Clausen is leaving at the end of the year Ophelia’s Place, which provides resources for people struggling with eating disorders and promotes a healthier culture around body image. His daughter, Holli Zehring, takes his place as CEO.
If a recent email to Ophelia’s Place supporters announcing the changing of the guard is any indication, Clausen seems to prefer the word “transition” to “retirement.”
“I don’t feel ready to retire. I’m always going to want to do meaningful and useful work, but the organization is ready for me to retire and pass it on to Holli,” Clausen said.
Previously, Zehring was the manager of Ophelia’s Place West, located in Gilbert, Arizona – just outside of Phoenix – where she resides with her family.
As teenagers, Zehring and her sister, Nicole, both struggled with eating disorders. Frustrated by their family’s difficulty accessing mental health services, Zehring and Clausen founded Ophelia’s Place in 2002. Clausen opened the Café at 407 in 2009 to provide a stream of funding for the nonprofit organization.
As she retires from the day-to-day operations of Ophelia’s Place and the cafe, Clausen is writing a book about her experience with both businesses. “A Café with a Cause” will offer leaders of non-profit organizations insight into how to generate revenue.
“I think more and more nonprofits need to think about sustainability from that perspective,” she said. “It’s so difficult — it takes so much energy to fundraise. This often takes you away from the mission of the organization.
Clausen said her daughter has a big vision for Ophelia’s Place and is “more than ready to take over the organization.” Zehring said his short-term goals for the nonprofit are to continue to raise awareness about eating disorders, identify resource gaps, and reinvigorate the organization’s digital course, which will focuses on the relationship between eating disorders and broader culture. The course can help people in their recovery process as well as mental health professionals who are trying to better understand the subject.
Looking back, Clausen said Ophelia’s Place not only helped her family persevere through Holli and Nicole’s own eating disorders, but also helped Clausen deal with his own anxiety. Over time, the nonprofit’s mission has expanded to fight the stigma of other mental health issues and challenge the culture and shame of food.
“I’m grateful to the community for believing in the work,” she said. “I think we’ve definitely evolved over the years and hopefully shed some light on the stigma of mental illness.”
Clausen said she was grateful to everyone who walked through the doors of 407 Tulip St., from customers to employees and community supporters.
“They all sort of left a piece of themselves in the cafe,” Clausen said.
Clausen’s best advice for Zehring and the association’s next generation of leaders? “Look at failure from a different angle.”
“We’ve failed a lot over the years and tried things that didn’t work, but those are also my biggest opportunities for learning and resilience,” Clausen said. “It’s hard, especially in the nonprofit world because you’re like, ‘I can’t fail, we have to keep our doors open.'”
One of those “failures,” Clausen said, was coffee’s struggle to stay afloat at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The cafe at 407 was forced to close for three months in the spring of 2020, and the cafe closed again in December 2020 after facing a $25,000 shortfall. The cafe piloted a mini market for local produce, which did not work.
“We created a model that didn’t necessarily work,” Clausen said, adding that such experiences taught him, “I may not know what I want to do, but I know what I don’t want to do. not to do.”
Fortunately, the café was able to reopen in February 2021. For the future, Zehring is focusing on strengthening the organization and the financial viability of the café.
“The organization cannot depend on one person or one thing. We need to have a variety of contributors and sources of income,” Zehring said. “For a long time it was just [my mom] keep the organization going and I have seen the price it has cost him. We must carry this load together.
Zehring said she was inspired by Adrienne Maree Brown’s book, “Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds,” which invites people to help themselves and the world by embracing change.
“Micro actions can lead to macro changes,” Zehring said. “If we can solve this problem in a community, we can solve a lot of problems and improve people’s lives.”
As the year – and Clausen’s tenure – draws to a close, Zehring and Clausen are asking residents of Midtown New York to keep Ophelia’s Place in mind during gift-giving season. Supporters can donate directly or purchase gift boxes and local produce at the cafe.
“The cafe contributed $55,315 to Ophelia’s Place this year and we’re asking the community to match it with year-end contributions,” Clausen said.
To donate directly to the organization, visit opheliasplace.org/give or stop by the Café at 407, which is open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The cafe is located at 407 Tulip St. in the village of Liverpool.