Weight-loss camps help kids fight obesity and gain self esteem
For Lily Momeyer, a high school student born and raised in Manhattan, the hardest part about being overweight was getting dressed. At 14, she stood 5 feet 4 inches tall, but weighed 150 pounds, about 30 pounds heavier than the healthy weight for an adolescent girl of her height.
"I was just really awkward looking, you know? Chubby. I couldn't fit well into clothes," said Momeyer, who has long dirty-blond hair and hazel eyes. "I would dread shopping when I was that age because I always had problems fitting into a pair of jeans. I'd have to get a really big waist size and they'd be so long. I hated back-to-school shopping."
But Momeyer doesn't hate shopping anymore; in fact, she loves it. After spending three summers at Camp Shane, a weight-loss camp in the Catskill Mountains two hours north of New York City, Momeyer, now 17, is an inch and a half taller and down to 135 pounds--an ideal weight.
"I can't tell you that coming to camp for one summer is going to change everybody's life," said David Ettenberg, whose parents opened Camp Shane in 1968.
The main focus of the camp, Ettenberg said, is to provide kids, who often have feelings of low self-worth, with a natural, caring and fun environment.
"Yes, you loose weight, yes you learn about nutrition," he said. "But, really, it's about gaining self-esteem."
As children's waist sizes continue to grow, so do the number of weight-loss camps designed to combat obesity. This summer, children from all over the nation are expected to flock to camps in the hope that, when they return home, they will be a little lighter and a little faster on their feet.
There are dozens of camps scattered about the country. Most take both boys and girls, and all insist that they provide as much fun as regular camps.
At Camp Shane, for instance, traditional activities like hiking, swimming and arts and crafts are augmented with nutrition and cooking classes, as well as a cognitive behavioral therapy program that strives to teach campers tools for successful weight management.
Campers learn to record their food intake and amount of exercise, as well as keep a journal about their thoughts and feelings in the process.
Many kids who go to these camps have spent agonizing years being picked on by their peers and sometimes even their siblings and parents. Often, they internalize these comments, something that does not help them take off the weight.
"We create who we are by the reaction of others toward us," said Larry Larsen, a child psychologist in Andover, Mass. "If our peers tell us we are fat, it becomes part of our self-concept of who we are."
But at weight-loss camps, kids join others who are dealing with the same issues. This exposure, camp officials say, often leads to the creation of a supportive community.
For Tony Sparber, owner of New Image Weight Loss Camps in California, Florida and Pennsylvania, it is crucial that campers feel emotionally secure. In other words, he says, no name calling, no teasing and no bullying allowed.
"We protect the kids who are at the camp," he said. "We make sure they are in a safe, homogenous, nonthreatening environment."
To maintain this supportive atmosphere, Sparber says he sends two to three bullies home every summer. "You can try to create a perfect utopia, but you've got to take action to keep it that way," he said. "You are always going to have those two kids that are going to be mean and nasty."
Sparber, who was himself an overweight teenager, talks from personal experience. "I've been picked on, and I know what that's like," he said.
At 14, Sparber was 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 250 pounds. He attended Camp Colong in the Pocono Mountains area of eastern Pennsylvania. The camp was sponsored by Weight Watchers, and it was run by his father. That summer he lost 30 to 35 pounds, and he said losing that weight changed his life.
"I was interested in sports, and after I attended the camp, I was able to make my school basketball team," he said. "I think the greatest thing for me was the social aspect of the camp. I was a very shy, introverted child, with a low self-esteem and a very poor social life. What the camp did for me was show me that I can be successful."
At New Image Weight Loss Camps in California, each day is separated into five scheduled activity periods. Kids engage in activities that include kayaking, games, aerobics, self-defense classes and talent shows.
When Sparber founded New Image in 1991, there were only 50 kids who attended, but this summer Sparber expects more than 1,000.
Not all camps follow the same regimen. Healthy Living Academy, the parent organization for Wellspring Weight Loss Camps and two boarding schools, does not allow return visits by campers who fail to lose weight their first summer. The organization argues that letting campers come back again can create a culture of failure.
"If the treatment's not successful the first time, we are going to do something different," said Ryan Craig, president of Healthy Living.
Though the organization was launched only five years ago, there are already Wellspring Summer Camps in seven states and one in England. In addition, it runs the Academy of the Sierras in California and North Carolina, boarding schools specifically designed for overweight students.
Craig says if a camper attends a four-week Wellspring camp but is not successful at losing weight, he is permitted to return only if he goes for the longer, eight-week session. And if he still isn't successful? Then he's off to weight-loss boarding school.
"If you are going to take someone and return them to a healthy weight for the rest of their life, you have to change their behavior," Craig said.
Wellspring Camps are strict and scientific. Campers are served three meals and two snacks daily, receiving a total of 1,200 calories and no more than 120 grams of fat. In addition, campers wear pedometers and must take a minimum of 10,000 steps a day.
But changing a young person's behavior--and waist size--comes at a price. Most of the camps cost more than $1,000 a week, and the obesity epidemic does not discriminate between thick and thin wallets.
"We probably talk to a dozen families a day who don't have the means to pay for our program, and that's a shame," Craig said.