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.”