An unlikely friendship, formed over 30 years ago, has resulted in a recent major gift being doubled to help students struggling with eating disorders at the University of Mississippi.
When Paul Riser of Little Rock, Arkansas, was in law school at Ole Miss, he met Ed Meek, then a UM administrator. In the course of conversation, each realized a friendship could be mutually beneficial — Riser teaching Meek to catch bass and Meek sharing his business acumen with Riser.
“Before I knew it he was slipping off from school and I was slipping off from work to go fishing,” Meek recalled. “I bought a big bass boat and we got to be good friends. We would talk about my investments, and he was always eager to learn. And it was clear that he was going to be an extraordinary businessman and he is.”
Riser, a 1987 UM College of Liberal Arts and 1990 School of Law graduate, owns and operates several auto dealerships in Arkansas. He echoed his friend’s sentiment: “With Ed’s business mind and the way he likes to hustle … I just found it very appealing to be around somebody like that. Of course his personality is infectious and we just got to be great friends.”
The two still talk about once a week, which is how Meek learned that Riser and his wife, Allyson, recently made a major gift to the university, establishing the Riser Family Wellness Fund. Because of their friendship, Meek and his wife, Becky, immediately matched the gift.
The new fund supports the William Magee Center for Wellness Education and UM Counseling Center’s mission to address prevention, treatment and recovery efforts related to eating disorders on the Ole Miss campus.
The centers’ focus is important to the Risers who witnessed the devastating impact an eating disorder had on a loved one struggling with anorexia, the delusion that one’s body is heavier than it appears.
Anorexia can lead to organ failure in individuals whose weight drops too low to sustain body functions. Symptoms can include fatigue, dizziness, hair loss, missed periods, lack of concentration and anxiety induced by the individual’s focus on constantly attempting to manage his or her body and others’ perception of it.
“The world is scary, and you can’t predict how things are going to go and so their way of coping with that anxiety is this idea that they can control what they put in their bodies at certain times of the day,” said Allyson Heflin Riser, a 1989 UM graduate of the College of Liberal Arts.
“We’re hopeful that the Magee Center will provide a sense of community for these young people who struggle because they really tend to isolate themselves and stay hidden and alone.”
Many people with eating disorders avoid others because they believe their body is constantly being judged. Those struggling with anorexia, for example, think about body image continuously. Calories consumed must be eliminated through exercise. Finding space in the day to exercise may lead to worrying about time management, especially for students trying to juggle their disorder with going to class and studying.
Even going to restaurants with friends can be excruciating for individuals with eating disorders who may wonder if they will be able to find a meal they will allow themselves to eat and if they will be able to finish it. Additionally, they may worry about feeling embarrassed by their disorder if friends notice they stopped eating.
These are the struggles many students face and, until recently, options for treatment have been limited, the Risers said.
“A few years ago, there was nowhere to turn on campus. There wasn’t a mechanism or facility that could point students or their parents in the right direction to get help for recovery,” Paul Riser said.
“We just wanted to help get someone to step one,” he continued. “If there was somewhere they could go and just get direction, that’s what we wanted. So now, you have the center with a focus on eating disorders and — boom! — here’s some direction. And that’s an advantage.”
The Risers are friends with David and Kent Magee of Oxford, Mississippi, whose grassroots efforts helped establish the William Magee Center in memory of their son. William Magee, an alumnus of the university’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and Croft Institute for International Studies and track member on the SEC academic honor roll, lost his life to an accidental overdose in 2013.
“Allyson and Paul made an impact on this university as engaged and involved students decades before, and it’s exciting to see their support and involvement as caring alumni that will help students who need it in this important area,” David Magee said. “We are thankful for their many years of friendship and support, and know their generosity will have great impact.”
The William Magee Center for AOD and Wellness Education provides students with education and support around alcohol and other drugs. More than 800 donors including students, alumni, faculty and staff contributed to building the center.
The effort is expanding as the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing is developing to serve Mississippi and beyond with a focus on better understanding how to prevent or break the cycle of unhealthy habits and addictions.
“There are parents who have children all over the Ole Miss campus who suffer from eating disorders right now and they don’t know what to do or where to turn,” Paul Riser said. “They wake up in the morning thinking about it and they go to bed thinking about it. So if we can help even one of those students, we’ll feel like this gift is worth it to us.”
The Riser Family Wellness Fund is open to support from organizations and individuals. Gifts can be made by sending a check to the University of Mississippi Foundation, with the fund’s name noted on the memo line, to 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655 or by giving online at https://nowandever.olemiss.edu/.
For more information on supporting the Magee Institute and its centers, contact Brett Barefoot, senior director of development for parents and family leadership, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 662-915-2711.
To seek help for a student, contact email@example.com or 662-915-6543.
By Bill Dabney/UM Foundation