November 4, 2012

Independence students losing weight, gaining confidence

Nine weeks into a 16-week experiment, the future of a radical partnership between the Independence School District and MindStream Academy’s health and fitness camp remains uncertain. But the picture for these 13 overweight Independence youths, one by one, was sharpening in ways they didn’t expect.

The notion that 13 overweight Independence students would all crawl out of their camp beds a thousand miles from home to run “suicides” on an outdoor basketball court had seemed preposterous.

With his head down, feet moving, chest heaving in the frosty darkness of these Carolina woods, 11-year-old Cameron Larkins marvels at himself and his schoolmates.

I’m actually doing this.

Nine weeks into a 16-week experiment, the future of a radical partnership between the Independence School District and MindStream Academy’s health and fitness camp remains uncertain.

The big picture is fuzzy. Finding a funding model for public schools to employ private camps in the war on childhood obesity is proving problematic.

But the picture for these Independence youths, one by one, was sharpening in ways they didn’t expect.

A full moon, lingering from the night before, silhouetted the western treetops, casting the students and their hoodies in a blue glow.

A regimen of jogging and stretching led up to the “suicides” — a series of exhausting back-and-forth sprints across the asphalt.

The first time they had tried them, some two and a half weeks before, “It had been like death to them,” trainer Nick Shappee said.

But there was Chrystal Loyd, 15. “I


running,” she would say later.

There was Nicole Baker, 17. Like most of the students, she’d withered with homesickness the first couple of weeks.

“Many of us were defiant,” she said. “You didn’t want to be told to do this, eat this.”

There was Johnathon Wicks, 14, sure back in late August “that the workouts would be no help to me,” he said. “I was so overweight.”

And so ran Cameron, no longer wheezing with asthma the way he figured he always would.

All of them sprinted in the growing morning light.

“Now I’m feeling so much energy,” Chrystal said.

There’s more than running of course — like learning how to make cookies out of applesauce or brownies out of black beans.

They’re learning to grow salad greens in their own garden.

They’re gaining confidence, understanding themselves and complicated human experiences through the mystical eyes of the camp’s horses.

But they’re also scared.

In seven weeks they’re going home again.

An uncertain future

What will happen then?

Cameron and Johnathon took the question lying face-down, propped on their elbows, stretched out side by side on a trampoline.

“We’re roommates,” Cameron said. “We’ve talked many nights about that.”

The mid-morning sun was trying to warm the day, but their jackets still felt good as they took a break from their online schoolwork.

“When I go back,” Johnathon said, “I want the bullying to stop — the name-calling.”

They’ve lost 77 pounds between them, Cameron going from 258 to 215, and Johnathon from 285 to 251. But they know those numbers are just a byproduct of the bigger changes they’re making.

“What’s going to be hard,” Johnathon said, “is continuing this working out, eating right — the healthiness.”

One of their battle plans imagines them in the roles of recruiters. They’ll enlist schoolmates as teammates in the cause of health and confidence.

“Other heavy kids need to know about this,” Cameron said.

The future-thinking is no accident, said director of operations Sarah Stone.

“From the day the kids get here,” she said, “we talk about going home.”

Easy fast food, couches and television will be waiting for them.

If this program works, they will take back the ability to master the grocery store and prepare meals, she said. They will take with them a resolve “to speak out for their health” and “navigate through a culture that is working against them.”

MindStream and the school district are also holding occasional meetings and workshops with the parents back in Independence to prepare them to support the new person that will soon return to them.

“Our work here starts on the inside,” Stone said.

The truth? This group of cobbled-together youths are teenagers, either by age or mindset. It’s hard shaping this sudden new family in tight quarters.

“We bicker a lot,” Cameron confesses.

“There’s a lot of putting-down,” said Johnathon.

But mostly they encourage each other. It shows when they’re running their timed mile, or counting sit-ups and push-ups, or when they are concocting low-calorie menu ideas.

It must seem so exotic on those weekends when they load into the bus for the half-hour ride to Hilton Head Island and walk out onto the wide-open beach and feel the endless tumble of the Atlantic over their toes.

Their regular jogs and bike rides wind through thick woods of tall pines and oak trees draped in weepy Spanish moss.

“Their biggest hurdle they’ve already overcome,” said Lee Watkins, a sort of surrogate mom who shares their living quarters as the residential coordinator. “That’s getting here. Overcoming fear.”

Ann O’Brien watches them work every week with her horses as director of the equine assisted learning program.

This week, as they embarked on a new drill under the broad pavilion, she turned misty eyed, watching them laugh together as they coaxed a palomino and a dark bay through new paces.

“These kids,” she said. “They help each other.”

Effective, but expensive

Ask them and most of the Independence youths say they’d like to come back for another semester.

MindStream founder Ray Travaglione would like to have them, and more.

But a semester’s tuition costs $28,500.

The Independence families paid only a small portion of that. The school district diverted the public funds allotted to each student to the program. The rest — at least half — has come from MindStream’s scramble for outside funding from grants, foundations and sponsorships.

The district describes this first semester pilot as “certainly promising,” spokeswoman Nancy Lewis said, “ and we are excited to see the final results.”

But both MindStream and the district are working through the funding puzzle to see if there is a viable future for such a public/private partnership.

“It won’t be for lack of trying,” Travaglione said. “We have to get this country fit.”

He imagines networks of school camps scattered across the country, working with school systems, lending help especially to children from the many middle- and low-income families that can’t nearly afford the cost of the few and distant camps that exist today.

“We need to figure out how to do what we’re doing for thousands of more kids around the country,” he said. “This is not something we can do on our own.”

Preparing for home

Preparing to go home means accumulating dessert recipes.

Banana strawberry pie at less than 100 calories a serving. Pumpkin pie smoothies. Cheesecake balls. Camp chef Tim Teasdale is still working on a low-calorie version of gummy bears.

“What about Rice Krispy treats?” Nicole asked.

The whole class, standing around the island kitchen counter in surgeon’s gloves, had just finished putting the black-bean brownies into the oven, and was ready to present more calorie-counting puzzles for Teasdale to ponder.

“Any recipe can be changed,” he said. “Like item for like item.” Guava nectar instead of sugar. Homemade walnut butter instead of peanut butter. Homemade ketchup with natural sweeteners.

“I’m teaching them to play with recipes,” he said. “You use trial and error. Like a chemistry set.”

Preparing to go home means gathering the wisdom of horses.

Nicole and Chrystal worry that they’ll have trouble sharing their message when they get home. Nicole has dropped from 259 pounds to 228 so far and Chrystal from 265 to 221. They both have younger siblings they want to help, who might miss what they’re saying.

“I’m worried I’m going to feel it’s my fault,” Nicole said.

Wednesday morning, they worked as a team, guiding the dark bay horse named Louie — Nicole walking behind, holding ropes in each hand from the horse’s bridle, and Chrystal walking on the wing.

They know that Louie is more sensitive than Lacey, the palomino.

They know that the people who will be important in their lives and the situations they meet will be unpredictable, like the differences in horses — and they can take pause and figure their way.

These were some of the lasting images as week No. 7 passed:

Nicole and Chrystal, letting out chirps of laughter, leading their horse into the sun on the far side of the pavilion’s dusty floor.

And Cameron, done with his anxious talk with Johnathon about life after camp, springing to his stocking feet to bounce on the trampoline.

“Watch me do a front flip,” he said, gaining height with each bound. Then, as a quick aside, he added, “I’m not going to land on my feet.”

He flipped anyway. Landed short and rolled. And bounded back to his feet to jump again.

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