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At Wellspring's summer camp in St. Petersburg, overweight teen campers lose pounds while gaining healthy lifestyles — but don't call it fat camp

ST. PETERSBURG

Ask Molly Wyatt to name the diets she's tried. She sighs. "South Beach, Atkins, LA Weight Loss, Quick Weight Loss, Stoplight Diet, the Girls Rule Diet, Dr. Phil, Oprah …" Her bookshelf is heavy with health books. Some espoused foods she didn't like. Some, she just stopped following. Some were just on sale. She searched for the magic formula with each purchase. "Every diet I ever tried I quit. … I can't go back to that." Molly is 17.

• • •

On the campus of Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, they're sweating so profusely that their shirts are drenched. Their cheeks are flushed, hair wiry. But it's a small worry.

They have a bigger goal in mind.

These 46 young people are a slice of a staggering new American landscape, where 18 percent of teenagers are obese, primed for a future of heart disease and asthma, sleep apnea and diabetes.

They are taunted mercilessly. People stare, devolve into quiet snickers, or say how good-looking they'd be — if only they lost weight.

They want it to be done.

They have come from Atlanta, Miami, Tennessee and beyond to Wellspring Camp for weight loss, hosted at Admiral Farragut. It's the camp's first year in Florida. The company, conceived in 2002, offers summer camps around the United States and internationally, as well as yearlong boarding schools in California and North Carolina.

Campers age 11 to 18 stay for up to eight weeks. They eat strictly balanced meals, exercise constantly. They keep food journals, try healthy recipes. Naturally, they drop pounds.

But here, no one utters the phrase fat camp. Wellspring founders point to a focus on biology, cognitive therapy and practical solutions. Fat camp is something else, they say — something archaic, when unenlightened parents shipped kids off to slim down with no science, no intent to change life at home.

Anyway, who would want to say they're at fat camp?

"We have teenagers, and they're not dumb," said Florida program director Ian Taylor. "They understand that this is what some people would consider a fat camp, and they don't want to tell their friends. Saying you're going to a fat camp is just admitting to everyone outwardly that they're overweight, and they're not always at a place where they can do that."

So where do they tell friends they're going?

Healthy living camp.

Or just plain summer camp.

Or, if you're 16-year-old Leo De Aguiar, you just say this:

"I'm going away."

• • •

Tuition at Wellspring costs more than $9,000 for eight weeks. Campers wake up most mornings before 7 a.m. They get limited cell phone and Internet time. They do yoga, soccer, basketball, pushups, planks, crunches, swimming. They take nutrition classes. They dine out in the real world to test their new nutrition knowledge.

If the program works as it should, they become obsessed with health the way an athlete thinks about his sport.

"You only get to feel good when you accomplish your mission," said Wellspring clinical director Dan Kirschenbaum. "If you don't, it's okay to be upset with yourself and anxious and not satisfied. We want them to be obsessed with making this work."

All campers wear pedometers, and must take a minimum of 10,000 steps per day.

If they take more, if they do more, if they eat better, they earn things — more cell phone time, trips, Internet access. It's a sort of feudal system. They are classified as Waders, then Swimmers, then Divers, then Surfers.

Leo is a Wader. He's trying hard to become a Swimmer.

The highest achievers? They're called Kahunas. Molly Wyatt, who lives in Atlanta, is a Kahuna.

As a little girl, she was not fat. She was built taller, bigger. The other girls in her elementary school were petite, built like tiny jewelry box ballerinas. They called her fat.

"If they were calling me fat, I thought I must be fat," she said.

So Molly ate and ate and ate.

Everyone's different, she said, and her bane was portion control. She viewed food as punishment, as reward.

She developed a razor wit, cracking jokes at her own expense before anyone else could. If she wasn't at least funny, she thought they'd think, look at Molly, she's fat, she's lame, she's stupid.

She strategically cropped photographs of herself to the shoulders and face. On Facebook, she downloaded a "truth box" to her profile where people could leave anonymous comments. She hoped they'd write something like, You're overweight, but you're still so great. But they only wrote the first part.

One day, a cute boy told her he'd date her — if she was thin.

At her biggest, she was 295 pounds.

"We were trying all sorts of programs," said her mother, Linda Wyatt. "She wasn't exercising, things just weren't happening for her."

When her high school band planned a trip to China, her parents suggested using that money for weight loss camp. Molly agreed.

During her first summer at a Wellspring camp in North Carolina, she struggled with injuries, with homesickness. She didn't reach her goal by summer's end. She pictured her school cafeteria with fries and pizza. Instead of going back to that, she chose to spend the next year of her life at Wellspring's boarding school in North Carolina.

Tuition at boarding school was $6,250 per month. It was money well spent, said her parents, a teacher and a surgeon.

"I wish we would have done it sooner," said Linda. "My husband said, 'If she was diagnosed with cancer, we wouldn't even pause to think about the cost of it. Why are we even hesitating?' "

• • •

Her mother now calls her "willowy." She can pull a kayak out of a river with one arm. She buys clothes in a Size 10.

She's lost 95 pounds.

"I'm not the fat girl anymore."

This summer, Molly came to Wellspring in Florida to mentor the other campers.

This week, she sat at lunch nibbling a turkey sandwich. She flipped through a stack of printed pages filled with nutrition advice, listing the exercise value of everything from swimming to typing a letter. It's her final diet book.

She wrote it herself.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

.Fast facts

National trends in childhood obesity

In 1976, 6 percent of teens were obese.

In 2006, 18 percent of teens were obese.

Seventy percent of obese children have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and abnormal glucose tolerance (a diabetes precursor).

Thirty-nine percent of obese children had two or more cardiovascular disease risk factors.

More risks of childhood obesity: asthma, sleep apnea, type 2 diabetes, social discrimination, continued weight problems into adulthood.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Wellspring camps

For information on Wellspring Florida, call toll-free 1-866-364-0808 or visit wellspringflorida.com.

At Wellspring's summer camp in St. Petersburg, overweight teen campers lose pounds while gaining healthy lifestyles — but don't call it fat camp 07/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 22, 2009 2:59pm]

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