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Independence students who shed many pounds at South Carolina camp hit a rough patch

Updated: 2013-11-30T01:37:02Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

The Independence students who lost hundreds of pounds at a South Carolina health camp knew days like these would come.

They’re home again. The camp counselors are a thousand miles away. Their local school district’s support so far has been thin.

Now six months past a radical partnership between a public school system and a remote private camp, the 15 students find themselves struggling to keep those lost pounds off as life throws its curveballs.

For one of them, it was the death of a family member.

For another, a friend was lost.

Now here come the holidays. Ducking the parties and the Christmas buffets.

Pressures everywhere.

Feeling alone.

From here on out, 18-year-old Teah Gentry said, “it’s about how bad you want it.”

They had returned triumphantly twice to cheering crowds at Kansas City International Airport, after the first semester in December 2012 and then after the second semester in May.

They had shed anywhere from around 60 to more than 100 pounds each. They came fortified with healthy food recipes, grocery shopping strategies and fitness regimens.

The partnership between the Independence School District and MindStream Academy in Bluffton, S.C., was unique. The limited public education dollars allotted each student were combined with grants raised by MindStream in an attempt to help the mostly middle-class and low-income Independence families afford the exotic camp experience.

Dangerously overweight students were trying to change their lives.

MindStream and the district were trying to create a model program to democratize exclusive private fitness camps.

In both cases, reality is hard.

Independence has decided the idea is not sustainable, spokeswoman Nancy Lewis said. The district does not plan to send any more students to MindStream and is carrying on with its locally based health programs.

MindStream is still reaching out to public school systems but working mostly closer to home.

But even the Independence-based support the district had said would be waiting specifically for the students from MindStream did not happen, though the district says some plans are in the works.

“We hit a bit of a rough patch,” said Rebecca Peabody, whose 14-year-old son, Jareb, has gained back a portion of the 75 pounds he lost.

They’re not the only ones. Several class members contacted by The Star shared similar struggles.

But one thing has not changed. They remain powerfully grateful that they got to go to the camp. Without any prompting, several said they would go back if they could.

Ricki Brown, overweight and afflicted by asthma as a fifth-grader, did not think then she would be playing any middle school sports.

But now, some 60 pounds lighter and working out regularly, the 13-year-old played seventh-grade volleyball and is on the basketball team.

At the start of the school year, after a summer of work getting ready for sports, Ricki beamed: “I haven’t used my inhaler for three months.”

Shopping for school clothes this fall was “so awesome,” said Kimberly Kuhlman, whose son, 12-year-old Cameron Larkins, was the youngest in the MindStream group.

They relished some hip shopping at Rue21 — “buying 32-inch-waist skinny jeans!” Kuhlman said.

Cameron had been wearing 47-inch-waist pants a year ago, before MindStream.

But she also fears more setbacks. She sees some of Cameron’s hard-earned trimness disappearing. He is back around 180 pounds after he had dropped from 250 to 150.

It probably would help, Cameron said, if the district had followed through on plans to create opportunities for the MindStream alums to get together and carry on the support they had given one another.

“Everyone was always on top of each other to make sure they don’t get fat,” Cameron said. “We were really tight.”

The district did not create programs just for MindStream students after they returned, Lewis said. The district’s wellness director is now looking at ways to reach out specifically to the MindStream students but at the same time improve programs for all students.

“Our goal was to take what we learned and inspire what we do here,” Lewis said.

There are many pieces in the district’s student wellness program, Lewis said, and the overweight students’ success at MindStream should show that no one needs to be left behind.

“We learned … that a healthy lifestyle is within the grasp of all students,” she said.

MindStream alumni don’t want to lose their grasp. Some are doing better than others, but they are trying to keep it going, finding their own alliances to help them.

Gentry is getting her friends to join her at the grocery store salad bar rather than the fast-food restaurant. Sometimes when hanging out at one of their homes, they’re baking their own healthier pizzas for snacks.

She is going to find out if the self-motivational strategies she learned will work. But it’s harder back home.

“We were sheltered together there” in South Carolina, she said.

Peabody said she and Jareb are getting back to the planning they were doing, counting calories. They made a goal that he will lose 10 pounds before he and his father go on a hunting trip.

Kuhlman said she will have Cameron walking the 2 miles home from school. He turns 13 in December, and he will be old enough to get a gym membership. And they will keep eating the lean chicken and turkey and whatever else it takes.

These are anxious times.

“His grandma and I are adamant,” Kuhlman said. “We’re not going to let it get away.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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