Over the years, alumni of the Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek have left stones painted in art therapy sessions arranged inside what is known as the center’s healing garden.
“May your courage and beauty continue to shine always, RIP Amanda,” one stone read.
Presumably, the alumna responsible for the message painted it as a tribute to a friend she lost, said Jessica Adams, director of admissions for The Renfrew Center of Florida.
Though exact numbers are difficult to determine, eating disorders take a lot of lives, she said.
At The Renfrew Center of Florida, with its only residential treatment facility located in Coconut Creek, counselors and staff work to help women overcome a spectrum of eating disorders, from anorexia and bulimia to binge eating.
This year, the Coconut Creek facility is celebrating its 25 year anniversary. Built on a 10-acre horse farm located on NW 48th Avenue, the 40-bed facility treats about 300 women per year and employs about 120 people.
“They saved my life,” said Barbara Windham, a Hobe Sound resident and alumna of the center, in a phone interview.
Windham, 75, left residential treatment about five years ago, after a series of medical issues forced her to confront her 50-year struggle with an eating disorder.
In the four months she spent at the center in Coconut Creek, Windham participated in individual counseling, group sessions, music therapy, art therapy and nutrition training. She said treatment helped her regain her sense of self.
“It’s never too late to recover,” Windham said.
As director of admissions, Adams helps prepare for and welcome up to four new arrivals per day.
Before she became the admissions director, Adams worked as an admissions coordinator to assess new arrivals and determine the level of care and specialized program best suited for them. Because the center serves women of all backgrounds, care is taken to determine each woman’s religious and cultural needs.
“Eating disorders do not discriminate by age, race or creed,” Adams said.
Though women arrive from all over the world, about 50 to 70 percent of those seeking treatment at the center traveled from somewhere within the state, said Gayle Brooks, Renfrew Center vice president and chief clinical officer.
With cultural pressure to maintain a beach-ready body, an argument can be made that women in South Florida are likely to experience more body image concerns than women in many other places, Brooks said.
According to Brooks, who also is celebrating 25 years with The Renfrew Center of Florida, recovery from an eating disorder depends on women learning how to manage the relationship between their emotions and eating.
“When you engage in an eating-disorder behavior, it helps you to not feel something,” Brooks said. “So if you’re depressed, not eating can make you numb so you don’t feel the depression quite so much. Or you might turn to food and eat a lot to help yourself feel better emotionally. So in treatment we’re not just helping you to eat normally, we’re also helping you to deal with your emotions.”
Last week, the Coconut Creek City Commission approved a proclamation making April 17 “Renfrew Center Foundation of Florida Appreciation Day.”
The day also will mark the 30th anniversary of The Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, the country’s first residential treatment center specializing in eating disorders. With 16 sites in 13 states, The Renfrew Center has treated more than 65,000 women since 1985, said Sam Menaged, founder and president.
“We are constantly adding new therapies, new concepts, evidence-based treatments,” Menaged said in a phone interview. “We’ve created a community of women working together to get better, and there is a tremendous power in community.”
Ilene Zimmerly, of Tamarac, works part time as a receptionist inside The Renfrew Center of Florida’s main administration building. In the 11 years she has worked at her desk, she has greeted hundreds of women passing through the center’s doors.
“A lot of them are very apprehensive, very frightened,” she said.
Often, what women seeking treatment are most scared about is losing the identity they developed alongside their eating disorder.
Zimmerly tries to reassure them, she said, in hopes that they will grow to see the center as an opportunity to overcome their disease and understand its underlying causes.
“I see a lot of people really improve as time goes on,” she said.
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