School Transforms Teens' Lives, One Pound At A Time

Nov 22, 2011
Originally published on August 1, 2012 7:04 pm

First of two stories, which are part of an ongoing series on obesity in America. The first part begins in August as students start their weight-loss journey at Wellspring Academy, a boarding school in Brevard, N.C. The second checks in with the students a few months later.

The gravel road announces families' arrival at Wellspring before they actually get there. As cars begin to pull up the breathtakingly narrow, windy roads that lead to school, the thrumming of cicadas is temporarily eclipsed by the crunch of tires on gravel, then the slam of car doors.

Teens cross the green lawns, often with parents and siblings in tow, to check in on a rustic front porch of what looks like a big log cabin. There they receive a schedule and make their way to Tammy Olivier, Wellspring's office manager and HR director. As "Miss Tammy" — honorifics are standard here; everyone is addressed as Miss, Mr. or Coach — welcomes the students, she asks them to catalog all the things they normally can't live without.

"Just write down what you brought with you, like your laptop, your cellphone, camera, Kindle, stuff like that," Richards says, pointing to the clipboard where all the valuables will be listed. "We'll put them in here," she says as she points to small plastic bin with a snap-close lid, "and label them, and give everything back to you when you leave."

This scene — minus the electronics appropriation — is replayed during move-in day on hundreds of campuses across the United States at the beginning of the school year. But this isn't just any campus — this is Wellspring Academy of the Carolinas, a boarding school designed to help overweight and obese students lose weight while also teaching traditional academics. And these teens aren't just any teens; they are kids who are seriously overweight, sometimes so much so that their lives are endangered. Wellspring is the one place in the world that might be able to, finally, help them take — and keep — the weight off.

Don't Call It Fat Camp

Being here makes these kids special, but being overweight doesn't.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 30 percent of American teens are overweight, and it's pretty easy to guess why: too many sodas and high-calorie snacks; too much sitting before the computer and the TV; too many PE classes cut because of budget demands. The result: spiking numbers of teens with diabetes and increased risk of adult health problems like cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, cancer and stroke.

Some of the students here have dieted on their own, done programs like Weight Watchers, or seen nutritionists, which brought temporary loss that eventually led to weight regain. Wellspring, tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, N.C., promises no coddling, no distractions and a lot of hard work. And, says Director David Boeke, the school's very isolation is what allows its students to succeed.

"You can't do that when you're at home and always being interrupted by school, or the birthday party or the normal day-to-day events," Boeke, says, waving to returning students who are helping newcomers with their bags. "Here you're able to focus on yourself and do what you need to do to learn and be successful."

Like traditional boarding schools, there is a full day of classes and tutoring, so students will be current with what their schools are studying when they return to them. Students here range from middle school through high school.

Heather Richardson, Wellspring's clinical director, says this is definitely not your standard fat camp, although some students have been to those, too. (And Wellspring runs several weight-loss programs, including summer camps.)

"Students are not just spending a few weeks of their summer working at trying to get healthy quickly," Richardson says. "They're investing a big chunk of their life in change and habits that will allow them to have permanent and long-lasting effects in their weight control." The school has rolling admissions. Most kids come for the fall or the winter semester — or both.

It's a commitment of time, of energy and of a significant amount of money: A year at Wellspring costs about $62,500 — more than many four-year colleges. Some insurance companies will pay for the counseling services that are built into the curriculum, but that's less than a quarter of the total cost. Richardson admits the school gets its share of well-off students, but kids whose families are struggling financially manage to come, too.

"We've seen families who've had fundraisers with their churches [to help]. Many of these families have spent their retirement or all their children's education funds to come here," Richardson says. "Many of our families have said: 'This is your college, and we know we're adding years to your life. So this is more important now, and we'll figure out your education in the future.' "

Is It Worth It?

The big question is: After all this money and time and effort, is a stay at Wellspring worth it? Bethany Grace Gomez, 16, says yes. A vivacious girl with a quick smile and flashing dark eyes, Bethany came all the way from Galveston, Texas, to continue her work at Wellspring. She started last spring and says it was excruciatingly hard at first — the calorie restriction, the daily exercise, the myriad rules and the elimination of normal daily distractions like TV and her cellphone.

From an angry girl who was more than 100 pounds overweight, she has morphed into a friendly, outgoing young adult with a much slimmer profile. Between her two months at Wellspring Academy in North Carolina last year and six weeks at a Wellspring camp over the summer, Bethany says, "I lost about 65 pounds, and I'm about halfway there."

She says people often ask her the is-it-worth-it question.

"This has honestly made me a different person. It's not only helped me with my weight loss; it's also helped me become more mature, because I'm away from my family. It's preparing me for college life, because I'm in a dorm. I'm just so grateful for this experience." She's hoping she'll spend one more semester here, then return home to her family. "I love it here, but I'm ready to do the work and then move on with my life," she says.

Linda Humphrey has come this first day with her daughter Haley, 15; they're both friendly, with an unmistakable Alabama twang. Linda expects Haley to be here "at least a semester." Haley did a Wellspring camp, too, and her mother says the end-of-summer results were gratifying. "She lost about 34 pounds in six weeks, her body mass index went down a few points," Humphrey says. Haley is "a lot healthier, and a lot happier with herself and who she is, which has been a great thing for us."

It's what other parents are hoping for their children, too. Sydney Applebaum's parents, Meryl and Mitch, flew from Boston with their young son, Matt, to sign up Sydney, who is 16. When asked what she hopes Sydney will get from her stay here, Meryl tears up and waves to her husband to speak for them both.

"We hope she learns about herself, and makes the changes that she really wants to make," Mitch says, looking fondly over at his oldest child.

And what if some of those changes involve revamping the family's diet once Sydney returns home for good?

"Hopefully she'll learn a lot here, and return to teach some of that to us," Mitch says with a wink. "The first 16 years, we were teaching her. Now it's her turn to time to pay it forward, so to speak."

If obesity has touched your life, share your story with NPR and the Public Insight Network.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. In the battle against obesity, the casualties are often children. There are, of course, no magic pills to conquer fat and the treatments that work for kids are usually time consuming and expensive.

In August, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited a boarding school that's teaching kids a hard lesson: that keeping weight off requires a lifetime commitment. She then went back two months later follow up. Today, we have the first of her two reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: It's moving in day at Wellspring Academy of the Carolinas in Brevard, North Carolina.

TAMMY OLIVIER: Good morning, Haley (ph). I'm Miss Tammy. Nice to meet you.

BATES: Tammy Olivier, Wellspring's office manager, is greeting Haley Humphrey, who's come from Alabama with her mom and toddler brother. As she signs in, Haley also prepares to give up the electronics that are the life blood for most teens.

OLIVIER: I'm looking for cell phones, iPods, cameras, laptops, iPads, Kindles, Nooks.

BATES: In other words, nothing to encourage sedentary behavior, especially at the expense of movement.

Wellspring is nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 20 minutes south of Ashville. It's in a part of the country that's known for its caloric cuisine, but don't look for any of that here. No buttered cornbread, no pork barbecue, no huckleberry pie with home-churned ice cream. That's for the outside world.

Here, only the scenery is luscious. It's also work. Students will hike the rolling green hills, ride horses and swim the calm lake as part of their daily exercise. The five-year-old Wellspring campus here and its sister campus in California have earned a reputation for taking in children who are overweight, sometimes morbidly obese, and teaching them over several months to prefer healthy food and exercise, which is why Haley's mother and brother have come to drop her off today.

LINDA HUMPHREY: My name's Linda Humphrey. I'm here for my daughter Haley, who's 15 and she's here to lose weight and to get healthy.

OLIVIER: And how long will Haley be here?

HUMPHREY: At least a semester, which is four months.

BATES: Like a lot of Wellspring students, Haley tried other weight loss methods before committing to this rigorous and expensive one. Linda says Haley went to a Wellspring summer camp and saw progress and wanted to continue at school.

HUMPHREY: She lost 34 pounds in six weeks, dropped her BMI, her body mass index, so...

BATES: So now, Haley is ready to do full emersion. Out on the lawn, Wellspring's executive director, David Boeke, says full emersion may be the only thing that works for kids like Haley.

DAVID BOEKE: I think, ultimately, most of our students have already tried and worked very hard before they came here.

BATES: And Boeke says most don't come to a place like Wellspring unless and until they have exhausted other avenues. This is their last, best hope.

It's not an easy fix. A typical day at school starts with a five mile walk at 7:00 a.m. Then there's breakfast, classes, lunch, more physical activity, homework, dinner and an hour or so with a personal trainer a couple of nights a week before these kids finally fall into bed.

There are stationary bikes on the front porch in case students want to spin as they gossip. And scales are discreetly nestled into the corner of every room in case they want to check their progress.

And they do make progress. Trainer, Nicole Casing(ph), says one of the most gratifying parts of her job is watching children who come in at the beginning of the semester depressed, lethargic and unable to move perk up and look forward to exercise as the weeks go on.

NICOLE CASING: You also see them transform in the sense of their confidence because they realize they're capable of things they didn't think they were capable of before and so they really come out of their shells throughout their time here at Wellspring.

BATES: The Wellspring system is so intense, the school has become a reality TV star.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Kids from last year's class were featured in the Style channel's popular series "Too Fat for 15, Fighting Back." In it, viewers see firsthand how very hard it is to lose weight. Sometimes, as young Emily Hodge discovered, even when you do everything right, the needle on the scale doesn't budge.

EMILY HODGE: It sort of makes me upset when, like, people lose. Like, they didn't even try. Like, lose, like, a buttload of weight each week.

BATES: In the end, though, almost all of them do. So if Wellspring works, why aren't there 500 kids here instead of 50? For one thing, these students need a lot of attention. The academics are rigorous, so tests like the SATs can be taken on time. There's lots of behavior modification counseling and plenty of physical training, all best done in small numbers.

Clinical director Heather Richardson points out another unavoidable reality.

HEATHER RICHARDSON: The price of coming to a residential treatment type school is exorbitant.

BATES: A year at Wellspring is a little over $62,000, more than the annual tuition at most four year colleges, so many of the students here come from families that can afford to send them. But, says Richardson, many don't.

RICHARDSON: We've seen families who've had fundraisers with their churches, using their community, looking for loans. Many of our families are spending their retirement and all of their children's education funds just to send them here and I think some of our families will say this is your college.

BATES: It's a sign of how desperate families are to get their kids healthy and make sure they have a normal life expectancy. Many students, like this one, say the work and expense are worth it.

BETHANY GRACE GOMEZ: I'm Bethany Grace Gomez and I'm from Galveston, Texas.

BATES: Bethany is returning to Wellspring after a short stay here last year and time at a Wellspring summer camp. Her loss so far, 65 pounds. That's halfway to her total goal.

GOMEZ: It's life changing, honestly. Like, I told as many people who ask me about it. I'm like, this has honestly made me a different person. Like, it's not only helped me with my weight loss. It's helped me become more mature because I'm away from my family. It's preparing me for college life because I'm in a dorm and I'm so grateful for this experience.

BATES: She hopes she'll meet her goal soon and get to return home in time to go to her senior prom in a dress that's several sizes smaller. But living her thinner life will involve a lifelong adjustment. Going forward, Bethany will continue to keep her daily fat count low and maintain portion control. She'll wear a pedometer to encourage her to walk at least 10,000 steps daily. And she'll carefully monitor everything she eats by writing it down in a small journal. It's a routine all the new students will be very familiar with soon.

By early afternoon, the newbies are all moved in. They've met their roommates and coaches.

SYDNEY APPLEBAUM: Hi, I'm Sydney.

MARTHA PEDZWATER: I'm Coach Martha. Nice to meet you.

BATES: Their bags have been inspected in what's known as a duffle shuffle. Coach Martha Pedzwater(ph) explains.

PEDZWATER: The duffle shuffle is just where we go through and make sure that they have all the appropriate packing list items so that they're ready for their activities here.

BATES: Then it's time for the families to leave and the students to get down to the hard work of losing weight. If they make enough progress in the next eight weeks, they'll earn the right for what's called the Off Campus Challenge. That's when the kids will be allowed to go home for the weekend or go out to eat with their visiting families. It will be their first experience with an open-ended menu since coming here.

Tomorrow, we'll return to Wellspring to see how they did. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

BLOCK: And you can find pictures of Wellspring Academy and its students on our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.