By Ashley M. Casey
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 Woman Magazine, no less — but she found herself unable to step away from the Liverpool-based nonprofit she founded. Now, a decade later, she is calling it quits for good.
“I feel like I’ve cried ‘wolf’ too many times,” she said.
Clausen is stepping down at the end of the year from Ophelia’s Place, which offers resources to those struggling with eating disorders and promotes a healthier culture around body image. Her daughter, Holli Zehring, is taking her 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 like I’m ready to retire. I’m always going to want to do meaningful, purposeful work, but the organization is ready for me to retire and pass it onto Holli,” Clausen said.
Previously, Zehring was the director 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, were both struggling with eating disorders. Frustrated at the difficulty their family encountered accessing mental health services, Zehring and Clausen founded Ophelia’s Place in 2002. Clausen opened Café at 407 in 2009 to provide a funding stream for the nonprofit organization.
As she withdraws from day-to-day operations at Ophelia’s Place and the café, Clausen is writing a book about her experience with both enterprises. “A Café with a Cause” will offer nonprofit leaders an inside look at how to generate revenue.
“I think more and more nonprofits have to be thinking about sustainability from that perspective,” she said. “It’s so hard — it takes so much energy to fundraise. It often takes you away from the mission of the organization.”
Clausen said her daughter has a great vision for Ophelia’s Place and is “more than ready to take over the organization.” Zehring said her short-term goals for the nonprofit are to continue raising awareness of eating disorders, identifying the gaps in resources, and relaunching the organization’s digital course, which focuses on the relationship between eating disorders and the greater culture. The course can help people in their recovery process as well as mental health professionals trying to gain a better understanding of the topic.
Looking back, Clausen said Ophelia’s Place not only helped her family persevere through Holli and Nicole’s own eating disorders, but it helped Clausen cope with her own anxiety. Over time, the nonprofit’s mission has expanded to address the stigma of other mental health conditions and push back against diet culture and shame.
“I’m grateful to the community for believing in the work,” she said. “I think we definitely have evolved over the years and hopefully we’ve shed a light on the stigma of mental illness.”
Clausen said she is grateful for everyone who has passed through the doors of 407 Tulip St., from customers and clients to employees and community supporters.
“They’ve all kind of left a piece of themselves in the café,” Clausen said.
Clausen’s best bit of advice for Zehring and the next generation of the nonprofit’s leaders? “Look at failure from a different lens.”
“We failed a lot over the years and tried things that didn’t work, but also those were my greatest opportunities for learning and resilience,” Clausen said. “It’s hard especially in the nonprofit world because you feel like, ‘I can’t fail — we have to keep our doors open.’”
One of those “failures,” Clausen said, was the café’s struggle to stay afloat in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Café at 407 was forced to close for three months in the spring of 2020, and the café shuttered once again in December 2020 after facing a $25,000 shortfall. The café piloted a mini-marketplace for local goods, which did not pan out.
“We created a model that didn’t necessarily work,” Clausen said, adding that such experiences taught her, “I might not know what I do want to do, but I know what I don’t want to do.”
Fortunately, the café was able to reopen in February 2021. Looking ahead, Zehring is focusing on shoring up the organization and café’s financial sustainability.
“The organization can’t depend on one person or one thing. We have to have a variety of contributors and revenue streams,” Zehring said. “For a long time, it was just [my mom] keeping the organization going and I’ve seen the toll it’s taken on her. We need to carry this load together.”
Zehring said she is 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 change,” Zehring said. “If we can solve this problem in a community, then we can solve a lot of problems and make people’s lives better.”
With the year — and Clausen’s tenure — drawing to a close, Zehring and Clausen are asking Central New Yorkers to keep Ophelia’s Place in mind during the gift-giving season. Supporters can donate directly or purchase gift boxes and local goods at the café.
“The cafe has contributed $55,315 to Ophelia’s Place this year and we are asking the community to match it with end-of-year contributions,” Clausen said.
To donate directly to the organization, visit opheliasplace.org/give or stop by Café at 407, which is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The café is located at 407 Tulip St. in the village of Liverpool.