Being a nurse and teacher for 20 years I was on the frontline when the childhood obesity epidemic emerged. I worked with students in a major medical center. The children’s hospital on campus began to see 5 year olds with cirrhosis of the liver, 8 year olds having strokes, and 20 year olds having heart attacks. We even had to change the name of Juvenile diabetes to type 1 diabetes because kids had begun to develop adult onset diabetes now called type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is absolutely preventable and no child should have it! This is the diabetes of my grandparent’s generation. From experience we know that in 10-15 years after diagnosis we will see the complications from type 2 diabetes which are heart disease, kidney failure, blindness and amputations to name a few. Type 2 diabetes is an unforgiving disease which will not discriminate for age.
My entire life has been dedicated to health and education which I consider to be basic human rights. I truly believe that when people know better then they can do better. I also believe that when you lose your health—nothing else will ever matter quite the same again.
Some will say I am the hardest working woman that you will ever meet. I say that I have never worked a day in my life! What I do is who I am. I am a nurse and teacher. It is all consuming. One cannot leave work behind in either profession…..you must always be “on” when needed.
My mid-life crisis occurred when I was 40 years old. I saw a catastrophic event emerging and I began looking for solutions. I went to work at what looked to be the best weight loss camp for kids in the nation. On the internet it appeared to be perfect. Oh my—nothing could have been further from the truth. It was at that camp my rose-colored glasses were shattered. It was all about BIG business weight loss hype, repeat customers and money. I did not consider it safe for kids or employees. Profit was their driving force. I came home from that camp and said to my husband “Honey, give me all your money because someone who cares about kids needs to do this. I know what works and I know what is missing. And we have enough love to share to help kids heal and become successful.” The man said yes and we have been saving lives ever since.
Our camp has been built on love. It has taken great personal sacrifice in an effort to “save this generation of kids”. We sold personal possessions like grandmother’s crystal and we both worked other jobs to pay for the things to start camp. We did not receive salaries most of these years and we work every day of the year, we sold our home so that we could pay staff in the recession and moved to a dilapidated cabin at camp. We did not have hot and cold water in our bathroom for 2 years because we had to fix the other cabins for campers first.
I slept in my office at the hospital from Monday through Friday so that the money I saved on gas could be used to buy paint, etc for camp improvements. I knew where to get a gurney from the emergency room in the evening and what patient floor had extra sheets and pillows that I could use. I knew which public restroom had a lock so that I could brush my teeth and get a “bath by sink” before day shift came to work. I took brown bag meals and work from camp to keep my busy through the week.
These were the easy sacrifices. The hard ones have been the realization that we cannot get back the time that we have given up with our own families. Special moments like our 25th and 30th wedding anniversaries were spent celebrating with our 80 camp kids instead of our own family. Both sets of our parents are elderly and we know that we are missing out on time with them. This is perhaps the hardest sacrifice. Yet we know that our life experience has come together for this one purpose. We truly believe that children are our future and we actually are doing something about it.
The motto was “whatever it takes” and it took a lot for a new nonprofit without funders to survive during this recession. It has been a long 10 years, but we along with our exceptional staff have saved more lives here than I ever did in a traditional nursing role
For my husband and me, this is our encore career. We created a “LivingWellVillage” to address this crisis in our society with a program that works. This is not the “retirement” we worked to achieve but living a life with purpose is a life that matters. We are in search of an army of like-minded people to help us re-direct the lives of a nation. Our mission is essential to the future of our nation’s being!
I will always remember Mark! He is the dad of a camper who made me realize the power of one in changing the world. He came to visit his daughter half way through summer camp. He ran down the hill, picked me up, kissed me on the lips and swung me around all the while saying “thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Now I had been happily married for 20-something years and had not been kissed like that by anyone except my husband in quite some time so I was a bit taken aback. I was wondering who this man was and to which child he belonged. Before camp I talk to parents on the phone and I do not see them except for a few minutes when they drop their child off for the summer. Most of the time I am not looking at them anyway since I am picking through their child’s hair looking for head lice the first time we meet.
I am called back to reality when I hear this dad say “I have not seen my daughter smile like that since she was an infant. Thank you!” There are tears in his eyes. and suddenly mine too. His daughter was 14 years old, 40 pounds lighter than the last time he saw her and her signs of diabetes had disappeared. He found at camp what we all seek for our children—health and happiness.
Mark’s daughter got a second chance. Her family gave her this opportunity and she became responsible for her own life and choices. She will choose to live life well….or not. Simply, the choice is hers. At any time she will be able to use the tools she learned at camp even after we are all long gone. She has achieved success once and if she needs to find it again, she has the tools to do it..
It was two years after that moment when Mark called me again. He asked if we would meet him as he was passing through St. Louis. I closed my eyes and could picture every detail of his face and I just knew that I would spot him in a second. Instead I walked right past him without recognizing him! He had lost 150 pounds, given up smoking and was traveling to Phoenix to run his first marathon.
That is the power of Camp Jump Start! We will never be able to calculate the ripple effect but I know the power that has been unleashed thanks to Mark!
Moral to the story: Sometimes we do for our kids what we would not do for ourselves. This grassroots effort is how we change our nation’s health—one child and one family at a time. It is a life long struggle for many but working together makes the road to health a bit less bumpy.
****Stories that appear here happened to real people and are told as I remember them. No child or family is identifiable and some stories may be blended between people so that no one will recognize a specific person or event. Truly most of these moments cannot be made up in one’s wildest imagination, but some stories do sound similar even when you think it could not happen to anyone else! The purpose of my blog is to relate to those in similar circumstances. We want to bring to you the inspirational stories that we have witnessed and we wish to make life’s journey a bit easier for those coming after us.
We need to slow down because we move through life too fast. All the conveniences of the 21st century have not given us what we really want: more time. We get caught up in a whirlwind and do not know how to get out.
If we say our family is most important to us, then we need to put our time and efforts with them. This is not easy in our world, but it can be done once you are conscious of your wishes.
Over the years, it has been convenient to place the blame on genetics for being overweight. It is far easier to accept when you can point the finger to someplace other than looking in the mirror. But the same genetic pool can turn out two very different children. Many would say the skinny one is lucky and the chunky one is not. But in reality, the opposite may be true. It is recognized by many that being overweight is a symptom of being unhealthy. So the chunky kid actually is getting the wake up call to do better. The skinny kid may very well have the beginning stages of heart disease from eating the same foods that weighed down the chunky kid, but the skinny kid is living in false security that they are healthy. Therefore, parents are not punishing the skinny kid by keeping junk food out of the home. Our home must remain the safe zone by stocking only foods with benefits. Snack items should be string cheese, low-fat pudding, or fruit, to suggest a few.
Genetics may predispose us to obesity, but it is truly lifestyle that causes it. Let us set our families up for success by creating a safe environment and a fundamental base for the family’s healthy development.
This new year let us choose wisely and begin to make the priorities that we say we have in life really become the priority of our day.
If only kids came with instructions, we could be perfect parents. Regrettably, there are no instructions and therefore no perfect parents. We try to do our best raising our families but the busyness of life gets in the way. The problem rests in the fact that sometimes we do not have enough information to make the best decisions. I am a firm believer that “when you know better—you can do better”. These are suggestions for resolutions to a Happy and Healthier New Year that will lead to a Happier and Healthier Family.
When a baby is born, we are so excited. We count their fingers and toes, we ask the doctor if the baby is healthy and, if we are lucky, the doctor says “yes”. We expect that to mean for the next twenty-one years our child will be well. But no one explains to us the important part that we must play, and we really do not get any training for the most important role for which we are cast. As parents, we see only sickness and health; the spectrum in between is lost. We need to pay attention to this gray area.
A parent lovingly fulfills every basic need for an infant, and as the infant grows, it learns to do these tasks by mimicking the way of the parents. As mothers, when a baby cries from hunger we pick them up to comfort them, speak soothingly to them, and feed them. It is an enjoyable time between mother and child. But some babies come to associate food as the comfort. Unless we expand upon this coping mechanism, this baby is destined to a life of emotional eating.
This New Year, let us resolve to choose an enjoyable activity that role models to our children how to deal with stress on a daily basis. Try walking, biking, or dancing to deal with frustrations instead and include your children in this activity. Children copy what we do, not what we say. And we benefit as a family because sometimes we do for our children what we would not do for our self!
The childhood obesity epidemic is a complex problem for society, but truly as parents we are much more concerned about what occurs within our own four walls at home. Many families believe that their chunky child will outgrow their baby fat, but it takes only a few extra pounds to weigh a child down. Then the child does not feel well participating in activity so they become less active and the pounds begin to pile up. Kids are cute but they are cruel to each other. The old saying of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” was never farther from the truth. The words are forever etched in our children’s brains and hearts and the pain is far more debilitating than broken bones. Their spirits become broken instead. This prevents our child from becoming who they were meant to be. The vicious cycle is set because more than 8 out of 10 of these children will go on to become overweight adults, carrying with them forever all the baggage from childhood. That is if we continue to feed this vicious cycle.
This New Year let us resolve to ask our pediatrician what a normal weight range is for each of our children and our self. Parents are forced out of denial and empowered by this knowledge. No longer will weight be a forbidden secret, but a symptom that can be healed by the family.
Many physicians feel helpless dealing with this obesity epidemic because it requires intense education/assistance to put the family on a healthy path. Time that most of them do not have to give. Most physicians have not even taken nutrition courses, so they do not feel comfortable being the expert, either. But they can refer you to one!
It would be an honor to be a part of your life journey.
Like many things in life, we need to stop thinking so much about something and just start. Whether it be a diet, exercise or writing a blog….just thinking about the issue at hand can paralyze us. So today I decided to begin my journey in the world of blogs. No more thinking about it. I am now doing something about it and I challenge you to do that which you have been thinking about longer than you should. Just start….
I hope from the stories and thoughts that I share in this blogosphere, you will find something worthwhile. After all, life is about sharing our journey with the hopes that our path makes it easier for someone else to follow. My life has never been boring! After 30 years of working with kids, I guarantee that you cannot make these things up that I will share in future blogs.
Today though I am thinking about the show “Biggest Loser”. I have never been fond of the name but no one asked me. I do admit that a lot of good has come from the show. It has brought attention to a health crisis in our nation. It has inspired many to take action in their own life. It has educated those that judge that maybe it is not so easy to just lose weight and exercise. It has shown us that in the United States of America malnutrition is in abundance.
Several years ago I met with one of the successful participants on the “Biggest Loser”. We met at a Starbucks in Chicago at his request. He wanted to know what we did at our weight loss camp for kids that was different from what everyone saw on the “Biggest Loser”. I explained that our camp was not just about diet and exercise. We dealt with emotions and issues like divorced/separated/blended families, adoption, loss of a loved one and anxiety to name a few. We taught stress management along with nutrition classes. We were active and had fun at summer camp letting kids be kids. Kids had the opportunity to grow from mistakes in a safe, structured environment while adults supervised and intervened as necessary. Today kids lack this support system in many cases. We developed individual plans for home so that kids could maintain success and the entire family could live well. He told me that the “Biggest Loser” only pushed contestants for diet and exercise. It was all about the numbers. After all, it was a television show and ratings were the driving force. It was not about a mission to change and save the world. It was about business.
No wonder this man gained his weight back.
I do not like the idea of young children on the show this coming season. I am certain that there will be drama and the cameras will capture all the vulnerable moments that will be etched in America’s minds. People will be talking and judging. Great for ratings but not great for kids! Some may be treated like celebrities for a time while others will be openly ridiculed. Then the season will end, the show will close and they will be forgotten on the set, but the children will never be able to leave it behind. Reruns will pop up when least expected and it will live forever on the internet.
My concern is that this show will exploit kids. I believe that life is hard enough already for these kids and a child cannot give informed consent to this scrutiny. I understand that desperate parent’s will do desperate things if they think it might help their kids. They simply do not know what else to do. I know that this is not it!
As I write my blog, I too will share stories about kids. But it will NEVER be about one kid. All stories will be true events just mixed up because I never want a child recognized by what I write. Truth is many stories are similar and people who have never been to camp may feel like I am telling their personal story. Childhood is a sacred time and we as adults need to honor this age of what should be innocence. Adults are put in a child’s life to protect them.
In our society today parents are searching for answers. I can tell you that this crisis is not the child’s fault nor do I think that it is the parent’s fault in most cases. We, as a society, have created this catastrophic event and it is up to ALL of us to make the necessary changes. While many people continue to talk about this, I actually believe the children are our future. This is why we have been DOING something about this health crisis. The time for talk is over if we are to save this generation of children! Watching kids get yelled at and struggle on national television is NOT the answer.
Want to make a real difference? Come help us do what is right for kids!
CAMP TEACHES TEENS HOW TO LIVE HEALTHY LIVES
By Jerri Stroud, BBB Editor
Jean Huelsing said she was inspired to start Living Well Village nearly a decade ago after seeing overweight children suffering from a variety of illnesses normally seen in adults. She’d been a registered nurse for 20 years.
Huelsing said she found it shocking that so many children were suffering from diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. She wanted to do something to help children reclaim their health and build self-efficacy.
“I decided to step up and be part of the solution,” Huelsing said as she puttered around the village in her golf cart recently. She’d like to see a world where no child would have adult disease and no one dies from preventable illness.
The village is on a 250-acre plot near Imperial, Mo., with wooded hills and a lake. It’s home to Camp Jump Start, the nation’s only nonprofit weight loss camp. Huelsing prefers to call it a “healthy lifestyle immersion camp” because it focuses on building a child’s self-image and healthy habits, not just losing weight.
The camp opened in 2003, and in 2006, the camp became a nonprofit, Living Well Foundation, which is now a BBB Accredited Charity. Huelsing says that 90 cents of every dollar donated is used to further the foundation’s mission.
The foundation offers a summer weight loss camp for children 9 to 17 years old, wellness programs for college students, weekend adult programs and distance learning for campers and their parents after they attend camp.
Children come to Camp Jump Start from all 50 states and 20 foreign countries, paying $4,000 for a four-week session or $7,295 for eight weeks. Some scholarship aid is available from donations by parents of past campers, but it doesn’t cover demand.
Before children arrive, parents are asked to fill out a 30-page application with detailed information on the child’s health, dietary and other habits. Huelsing tries to screen out campers with severe eating disorders and emotional problems. Even so, she’s found that about 5 percent of campers had attempted suicide before coming to camp. None have made attempts after attending camp, she said.
The first day at Camp Jump Start begins with an early wake-up call. Campers are weighed and have breakfast. After that, they have to run 6.5 laps around the camp’s track, the equivalent of a mile. That’s after they walk up the hill to the track.
“They don’t like it at first,” Huelsing said. One boy took 18 minutes to complete the run the first day. By the end of camp, he was running it in six and a half minutes.
Campers attend three morning classes, many involving physical activity. After lunch, there’s a class on leadership and then field sports. They swim in the late afternoon, then have dinner, chores and “call time,” a once-daily chance to use cell phones to talk to parents or friends. There’s usually an activity in the evening, “shower hour,” free time and a snack before bed.
“We don’t torture them,” Huelsing said. Everyone is encouraged to participate in all activities and to try new things.
Head counselor Jeremy Simmons has taught many campers, including older teens, how to ride bikes for the first time. He taught one disabled girl who’d been told she would never ride, a feat Huelsing calls monumental.
Simmons can relate to campers because he weighed 245 pounds when he first came as a counselor in 2006. He lost 51 pounds that first summer and is now slim and fit.
“I got my life back,” said Simmons, a math teacher in Pattonville during the school year. He has continued working at the camp because he believes he can make more difference in children’s lives in the eight weeks at camp than in an entire school year.
Halley Felty, a counselor from Kansas City, came to camp after her sophomore year in high school, when she was five feet tall and pushing 200 pounds.
“It turns out to be the best decision I made in my life,” said Felty, now a sophomore at Mizzou. “I am clearly not an ideal weight yet,” she said, and she sweats through classes along with the campers. “I’m not going to ask (campers) to do what I wouldn’t do,” she said.
Huelsing has worked with researchers from several universities on medical and nutritional studies of campers, some of them published in medical journals. Her work has been recognized by the National Institutes of Health.
Huelsing is concerned when she hears parents ask her to “fix” their children when they arrive at camp.
“I tell them their kids aren’t broken, but something in their family lifestyle is,” she said. She tries to get children to see their own value while changing their habits. “Their job as a kid is to figure out what they’re good at and to know that they each have a purpose.”
By Heather Adams of Columbia Faith & Values
At 12 years old, Summer Davis was frustrated with the amount of weight she had gained.
“I started getting really annoyed and mad at myself for being overweight,” she said.
She began researching weight loss tips online when she stumbled across the website for a camp near St. Louis: Camp Jump Start, a weight loss camp for 10- to 18-year-olds. “I realized you have to work hard instead of taking a pill or doing some weird thing to lose weight fast – you have to actually work hard,” Davis said.
She ordered an informational DVD and sat down with her parents to talk about her options for going.
Each week costs about $1,000, and each session is four weeks long. Campers can attend two sessions per summer. The camp includes exercise programs, a safe environment, air-conditioned cabins and child/parent education.
Davis’ family started saving money, and this summer, Davis went to camp.
Jean Huelsing, a registered nurse and fitness practitioner, started the camp with her husband using their retirement money. She had seen too many children in hospitals struggling with serious weight-related issues.
“We saw 8-year-olds with strokes, 20-year-olds having heart attacks, and now we’re aware of a 14-year-old girl who has a bilateral – mastectomy all related to obesity,” she said. “Obesity is our new epidemic, and we have to pay attention to it because it is going to be the downfall of all of our health care.”
Huelsing said campers usually lose about 7 to 10 percent of their body weight each four weeks they are at camp.
Exercise is presented as fun and is no longer a “dirty” word for campers. During their stay, campers do activities such as kayaking, swimming, biking, running, aerobics and yoga.
This summer, as a whole, campers lost a combined 2,514 pounds, and they took a combined total of more than 9 hours off their mile run times.
Forty-four campers arrived with signs of diabetes, but 24 left without any signs, and the other 20 all improved. “Kids live for today – they don’t see the consequences for decisions from today,” Huelsing said. “That’s why they have adults put into their life, so that we can protect them and guide them.”
But when it comes to physical fitness, that guidance gets difficult – Huelsing said many adults don’t have education in nutrition and physical activity.
Camper Madeline Appel, 11, said she like exercising at camp better than at school because camp counselors set an example by playing games alongside campers – unlike her P.E. teachers, who she sees sitting down drinking soda while the students exercise.
“They all get into the game and they encourage us to play and they’re playing with us,” Appel said. “It’s cool how they’re just not sitting on the bleachers saying, like, ‘Lets go!’ ‘Get a move on it!’ They’re actually playing the game with us.”
But one thing the camp doesn’t have is an indoor gym – and Huelsing said that makes things difficult. Campers sometimes have to do their aerobics inside buildings that have concrete floors and very little space.
Huelsing knows the concrete floors could hurt the campers’ knees in the future. But she also knows that if these children don’t lose weight, many of them might not make it to 30 years old.
“I have to look at the lesser of the two evils and make that choice,” Huelsing said. “I wish I didn’t have to make that choice.”
The gym could cost up to $2.5 million, but Huelsing said she has to trust in her faith that she will be provided with what she needs.
Along with physical health, Camp Jump Start also addresses mental and emotional health. Campers are given a happiness-life survey before and after camp. Each camper surveyed this summer showed improvements in liking themselves better after camp.
Huelsing said about 5 percent of campers who have come to the camp have previously attempted suicide, but she doesn’t know of any suicide attempts that have been made after children attend Camp Jump Start. She said it’s important for kids to feel like they are worth taking care of.
“Who knows what they’re going to do in life,” Huelsing said. “They might be the kid who goes to Mars. They might be the kid who finds the cure to cancer. They might be the kid who’s able to cure our whole society and find world peace. I have no idea what they can do, but I know that it will be pretty important.”
Another part of camp is the spiritual side. On Sundays, campers can sign up for Reflections on the Water, a time for camper-led worship. Campers of all religions are encouraged to participate and share.
Many times, campers use their faith for encouragement in their weight loss journey. Appel’s grandma sent her a new Bible to encourage her at camp.
“The first night I prayed to go home because I didn’t want to stay here,” Appel said. “Then, kind of in a way, God told me that I didn’t want to go home, and he told me that if I went home that I wouldn’t be successful.”
She lost 12 pounds during her first four weeks.
But more important than the numbers, both Appel and Davis are excited about their new lifestyle. They made plans to go shopping for a new wardrobe after camp. Davis planned to shop at Hollister, while Appel wanted clothes from Von Maur’s teen section.
Teens trade pounds for self-esteem at the camps that offer tools for lasting success.
By Jean Weiss for MSN Health & Fitness
NBA star Shaquille O’Neal’s reality show, “Shaq’s Big Challenge,” has garnered attention of late — no doubt inspiring millions of kids to sit in front of the television with snacks for yet another episode. But the show’s premise, that a boot camp for overweight teens can transform bad habits inspires the question: Does this approach work?
Preliminary studies suggest that in some cases, it does — especially when camps offer campers the skills they need to create lasting change.
Ask an expert
Child obesity experts hesitate to speak on the success rate of fitness boot camps, unless anecdotally, because there is limited scientific evidence either way. However, Dr. James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition in Denver and editor of the professional journal Obesity Management, reports that a study to be published in their December 2007 issue shows that campers not only experience weight loss at camp, but continue weight loss after returning home.
“I am cautiously impressed,” Hill says of the study, which examined the progress of campers attending the Wellspring Camps program, which operates in several states. “They produce impressive weight loss, maintained for a long period of time.”
Hill attributes the positive results to the fact that the camp is able to create an environment in which the child can relearn behavioral patterns. “We’ve unintentionally created a society with food everywhere and not enough opportunity for exercise,” he says. “The camps are doing what I wish we could do in our homes and our schools and our community. They take control of everything. I wish these camps weren’t necessary, but the fact is kids aren’t getting what they need in their current environment.”
An approach that works
Wellspring isn’t the only camp reporting long-term weight reduction in its campers. Washington University Medical Center is evaluating data from another camp that claims similar successes: Camp Jump Start, a program founded by Tom and Jean Huelsing that operates near St. Louis. According to Huelsing — who presented her camp’s success last year at the National Initiative for Children’s Health Care Quality in Washington, D.C. — Camp Jump Start has documented significant weight loss by attendees during camp and also the year following camp, thanks in large part to a free interactive Web site that helps the kids monitor their progress and stick to their program once they leave camp.
Scrolling through camper testimonials on Camp Jump Start’s Web site can be quite moving. The campers and their parents agree that a weight loss camp can offer a life-changing experience.
“When the kids come to camp, they won’t look at you — they won’t initiate conversation, they are slumped forward, looking down,” Huelsing says. “When they leave, they walk shoulders back, heads held high.”
Camp Jump Start campers are age 9 to 17 and come for either a four- or eight-week program. An effective program like Camp Jump Start teaches the children about nutrition, portion size and genetics, helps build self-esteem, and offers fun physical activities. Campers learn how to monitor their own progress through journaling as well as how to form an eating plan; they also role-play scenarios they may encounter once back home, such as how to navigate a trip to McDonald’s with a group of friends.
Meanwhile, camper parents receive their own homework, get tips on cleaning out their pantries and refrigerators, and learn how they can best support their child’s goals upon return from camp.
“We work out a contract between the child, the camp, and their family,” says Huelsing. “Then I tell parents to no longer take the responsibility. It is the child’s life. They are now responsible.”
Ask a Happy Camper
One need look no further than 14-year-old high school freshman Aaron Klopfer to be convinced that a boot camp can lead to long-term lifestyles changes for an overweight teen. Klopfer found Camp Jump Start two years ago as a seventh grader while surfing online. “I wanted to be different for high school,” he said. “I needed to do something drastic.” In the summer of 2006, Klopfer weighed in at 232 pounds.
Klopfer went for four weeks the first summer, losing 17 pounds. More remarkably, he lost 45 pounds after returning home. And there were more changes. He went from nearly failing sixth and seventh grades to becoming an honor roll student in eighth grade.
He so inspired his teachers and classmates he was invited to give their e eighth grade graduation speech. He convinced his mom to send him to camp a second summer, even though Huelsing encourages kids to come just once. He learned how to ride a bike for the first time. He returned home and joined his high school football team.
“The camp motivated me,” says Klopfer, who now weighs 168 pounds. “I was sick of being overweight. The best thing it did for me is make me feel good about myself, so I could keep off the weight.”
Once Klopfer started losing weight and feeling happy — perhaps for the first time in his life — the rest fell into place from there.
© MSN Healthy Living
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IMPERIAL – It rained in June on the first day of Camp Jump Start, ruining outdoor activities and provoking tears in a few kids who didn’t want to be there. By the next time it rained — in the seventh week of camp — there were cheers, hugs and dancing on the field as the dodge ball game played on.
The 100 youngsters who attended camp this summer lost pounds, reversed diabetes and shaved minutes off their mile run. Most importantly, they’ll tell you, they found a refuge from the bullying they endure as overweight kids.
“Where I’m from, I’m hated for being fat,” said Rodrigo Garza, 16, of Cancun, Mexico. “This is the only place where I can have friends and have a good time.”
Like any summer campers, the boys and girls have their disagreements and heartbreaks. But nobody is judged by their looks.
The wallflowers belt out karaoke songs. Boys feel comfortable taking off their T-shirts to swim. A few teenagers learned how to ride a bike for the first time.
The camp menu totals between 1,400 and 1,600 calories a day. The daily activities are workouts masquerading as recess — dodge ball, handball, soccer. After a four-week session of camp, most campers lose 7 percent to 10 percent of their body weight.
The camp was founded in 2003 by Jean Huelsing, a registered nurse, and her husband, Tom, a personal trainer. Revenues from the camp fund the Living Well Village, where they also host wellness retreats.
“I believe I save more lives doing this than I ever did in the hospital as a nurse,” Jean Huelsing said.
The Huelsings face serious challenges in their fight against childhood obesity. The camp, which costs about $1,000 a week, is only a little more than half full. More than 20 of the kids have diabetes. Almost the same number have asthma. Up to one-third of the campers wet their beds at night, a probable side effect of sleep apnea.
And then there are the parents who try to sabotage their kids’ success.
Some hide candy in their kids’ suitcases. Others want to come rescue their child at any sign of distress. Huelsing gets 60 emails a day from parents with questions and concerns.
“They don’t want their kids to be uncomfortable, but life is uncomfortable,” she said.
For the first time, two campers dropped out early.
PARENTS CAN BE HARMFUL
Huelsing worries that the kids with over-protective parents are less capable of making their own decisions about their health, especially if other family members are also overweight. Still, she sends them home after a four- or eight-week session with a good grasp of appropriate portion sizes and other nutritional information.
“They’ve all been given the tools. They can change their habits. They have the power to do that now,” she said.
Paige Firester, 14, has spent four summers at Camp Jump Start. She gained back the weight she lost last year when her father was diagnosed with cancer a few months after she returned home to Georgia. It didn’t help that the kitchen counters were covered in junk food every Friday night when her parents played poker.
This year, Paige is determined to get the whole family healthy, and they started by signing up for gym memberships together.
“We did it as a family; we’re going to get out of it as a family,” Paige said. “I already told them to clean the fridge out and get the ice cream out.”
The camp is structured so the kids can’t cheat. When they get home, their self-control will be tested with temptations everywhere.
Rodrigo plans to adapt Mexican recipes to reduce the fat and calories. Jack Haselhorst, a 13-year-old from Ballwin, will avoid the television and instead go running when he gets bored. For Evan Johnson, 13, of Kirkwood, it’s trying not to be jealous of a brother who can eat anything and not gain weight.
EFFECTIVE ALL YEAR
Camp counselors prove that the Camp Jump Start lifestyle can work year-round. Zoë Kennison, 20, of St. Louis, was 210 pounds when she came to camp in 2009. She lost 30 pounds as a camper and another 50 at home, including 15 during her freshman year in the dorms at Webster University where she put herself on a strict one-plate, no-fried-foods policy at meals.
“I set rules for myself, and I don’t break them,” Kennison said. “Eating healthy is my passion.”
Huelsing and the counselors keep in touch with campers and their families through the year with conference calls and an online community.
Brooke Sagerty of St. Charles said that follow-up support helped her teenage daughter, Riley, lose an additional 44 pounds in the last year after attending Camp Jump Start (where she lost her first 26 pounds).
“So many parents feel hopeless about getting their children on track to being healthy,” Sagerty said. “There is help out there, good help with passionate people who truly want these children to be healthy. My daughter is proof of it, physically and emotionally.”
Riley is at camp again this summer and wants to be a counselor some day. Many of the campers are return visitors, including some who still have weight to lose and others who want to reinforce healthy habits.
They’re welcomed back either way.
“There’s a lot to be said for having a safe place in your life. They don’t come back to be judged,” Huelsing said. “They come back to get back on track.”
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