Lose weight, gain confidence

Kids jump start weight loss at new summer camp


Monica Ginsburg


Sleepover camp brings to mind swimming, canoeing and singing around the campfire. Last summer for 50 kids, including Danielle Dedeoglou of Des Plaines, it also meant losing weight.

Eleven-year-old Danielle lost 45 pounds in eight weeks at Camp Jump Start, a new, co-ed summer weight loss camp located on the banks of the 1,000-acre Little Grassy Lake near Carbondale, Ill. With the help of her family, she’s lost an additional 20 pounds on her own.

Camp Jump Start (www.campjumpstart.com) started last summer and is the only camp of its kind in the Midwest. Combining a healthy dose of physical activity with nutritious meals and education, the camp’s weight-loss mission comes at a time when childhood obesity is on the rise. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of children and teens considered overweight has tripled in the past 20 years. In 2000, almost 9 million children and teens ages 6 to 19 were overweight.

Camp Jump Start aims to change that by helping kids develop a healthy lifestyle—and have fun doing it. The camp isn’t cheap—a four-week session runs $3,190 and eight weeks costs $5,290.

The goal is not only weight loss, but learning lifelong habits kids can implement at home—the key to maintaining weight loss and preventing other ailments associated with being overweight, such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

“This type of camp setting, away from the child’s day-to-day environment, removes temptations and, more importantly, helps promote healthy habits when kids leave camp,” says Dr. Mark Fishbein, a pediatric gastroenterologist at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, who referred a patient to the camp last summer.

“But if you think four weeks will solve a problem that’s taken a lifetime to create, you’re mistaken,” Fishbein says. “The key is continuity back home.”

Gordie Kaplan, executive director of the American Camp Association in Illinois, says the support the camp offers is also significant. “What you’ll see at any type of specialty camp is that kids feel a tremendous amount of relief from being around others who are in the same situation. It’s a great opportunity to provide for a change in lifestyle. But to a child, it’s all about having fun.”

Supporting a new lifestyle

Danielle says the support she got from her new friends was key. “The first day at camp was hard for me, but we were all a team,” she says. “If we had a problem, we would talk to each other and help each other. We were all succeeding together.”

In providing that kind of support, Camp Jump Start is filling a gap in the Midwest, Kaplan says. Of the 15 American Camp Association accredited weight loss camps in the country, Jump Start is the only one in this region.

 “There is a need for a weight reduction camp run by health care professionals,” says Kaplan. “There hasn’t been one in the Midwest for a decade or more. I’m excited about what they’re doing.”

Camp Jump Start keeps kids active, provides well-balanced, portion-controlled meals and teaches kids about nutrition, stress management and other tools to maintain a healthy lifestyle. There are two four-week sessions offered each summer. Campers attend one or both sessions. There is space for 150 10- to 17-year-olds at each session.

“All of the kids lost weight and they gained so much more in self-confidence and self-esteem,” says Jean Huelsing, a registered nurse at the Washington University Medical Center in St. Louis, Mo., who owns and runs the camp with her husband, Tom. “The transformation was amazing,” she adds.

With more than 20 years of coaching experience and a black belt in martial arts, Tom offers expertise on physical activity. The camp also keeps a registered dietician on staff. Many of the counselors are medical, nursing or physical education students from Southern Illinois University. This summer, one of last year’s campers, who lost 40 pounds at camp and another 40 pounds at home, is returning as a counselor.

That breadth of experience makes the difference, Huelsing says—kids who couldn’t climb a hill when camp started were rock climbing, hiking and horseback riding by the end.

“This is not a boot camp; the kids play all day,” she says. “There’s no trade secret to our success. It’s less food and more activity.”

“It’s not an easy task but I think [Huelsing] has the right idea,” says Fishbein. “Eat right, exercise more.”

Changing habits at home

The key, Huelsing says, is continuing that trend at home.

Before leaving camp, kids write a contract outlining their exercise goals, the role they will play in meal planning and how they will handle stress. As part of the contract, the campers ask their family for support, and everyone signs the document.

Parents receive nutritional information to help them understand food labels, control portion sizes and promote healthy eating. Kids also monitor their own progress and camp staff follows up by e-mail and phone for one year.

As an added incentive, there was a one-week reunion camp in October for campers who at least maintained their weight loss. All of the campers from the first session in 2004, at a minimum, had done that.

Since Camp Jump Start is new, there is no long-term research to determine how effective it is over time. And studies from other weight loss camps are limited, if available at all.

“A lot of camps are out to make money and I don’t know if they have the child’s best interest at heart,” says Fishbein. “If they’re not providing children with the proper home tools it may not be in their best interest to promote their long-term results.”

But Huelsing says long-term success is exactly what Jump Start is about. “Big business wants repeat customers,” she says. “I don’t want repeat customers. I want my kids to succeed.”

Empowering kids

In her contract, Danielle asked her parents to buy healthier foods and prepare more nutritious meals. For her part, Danielle agreed to exercise before school and to walk or play basketball after school instead of watching TV. She eats only half of her school hot lunch and skips the cake and pizza at birthday parties.

Danielle is returning to camp in June with the goal of losing another 45 pounds. “Eating healthier has gotten easier,” she says. “Since we’ve been drinking more water, I’m not used to pop anymore. And I like being more active.”

Kids also are encouraged to use what Huelsing calls the “magic” phrases of “I feel,” “I need” and “would you please” when asking family members for support. Huelsing counseled one camper who felt deprived when her family enjoyed dessert to ask her parents to please eat it in another room. 

“We don’t point the finger at the kid, we point the finger at the family,” says Fishbein. “Kids need to be empowered to speak up for themselves. But families are not doing their kids any favors by having unhealthy foods in the house in the first place.”

Fishbein encourages families to involve their doctor and to reach out to local organizations for support. “Doctors, schools and parents should all be on the same page so the child has a support system for the other 11 months,” he says. “Kids should be nurtured year round so losing weight goes beyond the four-week camp session.”

Huelsing also urges kids to join extra curricular sports or clubs. “Lots of kids turn to food for comfort,” she says. “It can be a coping mechanism if they are bored, lonely or facing a loss. Starting a new activity can help take away the boredom and put them in a whole new group of friends.”

And while the high sticker price makes the camp too expensive for some, Huelsing hopes to secure grant money to open it up to more people. “We’re working to obtain grant money that would offset some of the costs of running the camp,” she says. “Our ultmate goal is to make it affordable for all kids.”  


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