South Charlotte

Raising awareness about eating disorders

"Life is worth living," wrote Melissa Ritter, 46, in her daily affirmation journal on a crisp Halloween morning in 2007.

Ritter's sister and best friend, Lynn Dreyer, had come to visit her from Charlotte.

Later that afternoon Dreyer kissed and hugged Ritter goodbye and left to run some errands. She returned to the reality that Ritter had committed suicide due to the agonizing battle she had endured with bulimia, mostly in silence, since her teenager years.

"Our family was in the process of arranging an inpatient care treatment for Melissa, only we were too late," said Dreyer who described her sister as "a beautiful angel, inside and out."

After years of processing her grief, Dreyer decided to make a difference in the lives of those affected by eating disorders, which affect as many as 10 million females and 1 million males in the U.S.

On Sept. 24, Dreyer, along with the organization Networking, Women and Wine, will present the Sip and Savour event - a gallery crawl, wine tasting and food fest to raise funds for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and Melissa's Voice Foundation, Inc., an organization Dreyer started in memory of her sister that helps men and women pay for the extensive counseling and medical attention needed to treat eating disorders.

Five teams of professionals from the medical/counseling/nutritional community will be at each gallery to share information about eating disorders. According to NEDA, only one in 10 men and women with eating disorders receive treatment and only 35 percent of people that receive treatment get it at a specialized facility for eating disorders.

Camine Pappas, president of Networking, Women and Wine, says her group is dedicated to helping people get the treatment that many insurance companies don't recognize.

"In essence I see it this way. Networking, Women and Wine is about finding a friend. Sip and Savour is about saving one."

Dreyer, who is chairing the first annual NEDA Walk Charlotte on Oct. 22 to bring awareness to eating disorders, was thinking of creative ways to get the word out about it when a chance encounter during a morning walk through Myers Park provided the solution.

She was drawn into a building that housed a real estate firm to see if they would be interested in being a sponsor. To get to the office Dreyer had to pass through an art gallery. She was struck by the artwork of female images and body forms on the gallery walls.

"I immediately thought how beautiful women are in their natural, curvaceous womanly figures and said to myself 'I wish the world could see what I am seeing, that this is what women really look like and how amazingly beautiful they are,'" she recalled.

Dreyer knew the gallery, Allison Sprock Fine Art, would be a perfect venue to host an event. She got Pappas on board and lined up three other galleries, local restaurants and wine organizations. She was amazed how willing people were to help because they had a loved one with an eating disorder or knew someone who did.

Dreyer's inspiration for Sip and Savour is Katie Brumley, 24, who is partnering with Dreyer to put on the NEDA walk. Dreyer was sad to learn that Brumley, who has battled anorexia for seven years, couldn't afford the treatment she needed.

Brumley said her biggest challenges have been affording therapy and getting her distorted thoughts to stop.

"No matter how much weight I lost, I could always lose more," she said. "People don't realize that along with the terrible relationship with food comes perfectionism, obsessive/compulsive tendencies, anxiety and dealing with change."

Brumley realized in August 2010 that she wanted to fight and found a therapist in Summerville, S.C., where she was living that would see her for $50 a session and went every two weeks.

Since moving back to Charlotte last November, Brumley hasn't been able to find any free support groups or affordable therapy, and her insurance doesn't cover eating disorders.

"I want to get better, but it's so incredibly frustrating knowing that recovery is just out of my reach," she said.

Dreyer hopes to open the door for people to become more educated and to raise funds for those that cannot afford treatment. The first scholarship from Melissa's Voice Foundation, Inc. will be awarded at NEDA Walk Charlotte.

"I want to save lives and prevent anyone from learning the realities and dangers of eating disorders the way I did in finding my sister after she committed suicide. I do not want any one to ever have to say 'I was too late to help.'"