At 12 years old, Summer Davis was frustrated with the amount of weight she had gained.
“I started getting really annoyed and mad at myself for being overweight,” she said.
She began researching weight loss tips online when she stumbled across the website for a camp near St. Louis: Camp Jump Start, a weight loss camp for 10- to 18-year-olds. “I realized you have to work hard instead of taking a pill or doing some weird thing to lose weight fast – you have to actually work hard,” Davis said.
She ordered an informational DVD and sat down with her parents to talk about her options for going.
Each week costs about $1,000, and each session is four weeks long. Campers can attend two sessions per summer. The camp includes exercise programs, a safe environment, air-conditioned cabins and child/parent education.
Davis’ family started saving money, and this summer, Davis went to camp.
Jean Huelsing, a registered nurse and fitness practitioner, started the camp with her husband using their retirement money. She had seen too many children in hospitals struggling with serious weight-related issues.
“We saw 8-year-olds with strokes, 20-year-olds having heart attacks, and now we’re aware of a 14-year-old girl who has a bilateral – mastectomy all related to obesity,” she said. “Obesity is our new epidemic, and we have to pay attention to it because it is going to be the downfall of all of our health care.”
Huelsing said campers usually lose about 7 to 10 percent of their body weight each four weeks they are at camp.
Exercise is presented as fun and is no longer a “dirty” word for campers. During their stay, campers do activities such as kayaking, swimming, biking, running, aerobics and yoga.
This summer, as a whole, campers lost a combined 2,514 pounds, and they took a combined total of more than 9 hours off their mile run times.
Forty-four campers arrived with signs of diabetes, but 24 left without any signs, and the other 20 all improved.
“Kids live for today – they don’t see the consequences for decisions from today,” Huelsing said. “That’s why they have adults put into their life, so that we can protect them and guide them.”
But when it comes to physical fitness, that guidance gets difficult – Huelsing said many adults don’t have education in nutrition and physical activity.
Camper Madeline Appel, 11, said she like exercising at camp better than at school because camp counselors set an example by playing games alongside campers – unlike her P.E. teachers, who she sees sitting down drinking soda while the students exercise.
“They all get into the game and they encourage us to play and they’re playing with us,” Appel said. “It’s cool how they’re just not sitting on the bleachers saying, like, ‘Lets go!’ ‘Get a move on it!’ They’re actually playing the game with us.”
But one thing the camp doesn’t have is an indoor gym – and Huelsing said that makes things difficult. Campers sometimes have to do their aerobics inside buildings that have concrete floors and very little space.
Huelsing knows the concrete floors could hurt the campers’ knees in the future. But she also knows that if these children don’t lose weight, many of them might not make it to 30 years old.
“I have to look at the lesser of the two evils and make that choice,” Huelsing said. “I wish I didn’t have to make that choice.”
The gym could cost up to $2.5 million, but Huelsing said she has to trust in her faith that she will be provided with what she needs.
Along with physical health, Camp Jump Start also addresses mental and emotional health. Campers are given a happiness-life survey before and after camp. Each camper surveyed this summer showed improvements in liking themselves better after camp.
Huelsing said about 5 percent of campers who have come to the camp have previously attempted suicide, but she doesn’t know of any suicide attempts that have been made after children attend Camp Jump Start. She said it’s important for kids to feel like they are worth taking care of.
“Who knows what they’re going to do in life,” Huelsing said. “They might be the kid who goes to Mars. They might be the kid who finds the cure to cancer. They might be the kid who’s able to cure our whole society and find world peace. I have no idea what they can do, but I know that it will be pretty important.”
Another part of camp is the spiritual side. On Sundays, campers can sign up for Reflections on the Water, a time for camper-led worship. Campers of all religions are encouraged to participate and share.
Many times, campers use their faith for encouragement in their weight loss journey. Appel’s grandma sent her a new Bible to encourage her at camp.
“The first night I prayed to go home because I didn’t want to stay here,” Appel said. “Then, kind of in a way, God told me that I didn’t want to go home, and he told me that if I went home that I wouldn’t be successful.”
She lost 12 pounds during her first four weeks.
But more important than the numbers, both Appel and Davis are excited about their new lifestyle. They made plans to go shopping for a new wardrobe after camp. Davis planned to shop at Hollister, while Appel wanted clothes from Von Maur’s teen section.