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A Touching Story: The Camp That Embraces Obese Teens

For this week’s episode of CBS Doc Dot Com, I went back to camp.  OK, it wasn’t my camp – Camp Algonquin in Argyle, New York – now defunct, where I spent many an idyllic summer growing up.  It was Camp Shane in Ferndale, New York, listed on their website as “The original, longest running weight loss camp in the world” at 41 years and counting.

This is a tough time to be overweight or obese.  Last week the Centers for Disease Control announced that obesity-related diseases account for 147 billion dollars in medical costs every year in the United States.

About a quarter of Americans are obese and two thirds are either obese or overweight.  Over the past twenty years, obesity in teenagers has increased from 5 percent to almost 18 percent. Obese children and adolescents are more likely to become obese adults.  Which brings us back to Camp Shane.

I spent an hour talking to about a dozen kids ranging from ages 11 to 17 who had been gathered into a group by Camp owner David Ettenberg and his wife, Zipora.  They came in all shapes and sizes but shared a common sentiment – they felt safe at camp, surrounded by people who accepted them for who they were.  It brought tears to my eyes to hear how supportive they were of each other, how open they were about their emotions and fears.

In school other kids often mocked them.  There’s no way that would be tolerated at camp – not just by the staff but, more importantly, by the campers.  “We’re all in this together,” one boy offered.  A girl added, “It’s a safe zone for us.” A teenage girl said “You can wear a bikini without being made fun of.” I asked, “What would happen if you wore a bikini at home?” She answered, “You’d most likely get made fun of and like pushed in a pool.  Ah ha, you’re fat.”

A boy told me that kids at his school would ask him, “‘Why are you so massive?’  And like usually I’d just laugh it off but sometimes it does get a little annoying.  I’m like, how long until I get back to camp?”

The kids all said they had lost varying amounts of weight at camp through portion control and exercise, a program supervised by pediatrician Dr. Joanna Dolgoff.  The challenge has been trying to stay on track once they leave camp and return home.

If they can do it at camp, they can do it at home.  But not without the support of parents and schools who have been educated about how to help their children make healthy choices.  My good friend, Dr. Mehmet Oz, has launched a wonderful organization called HealthCorps “to help stem the crisis of child obesity through school-based health education and mentoring, as well as community events and outreach to underserved populations.”  Click here to see the HealthCorps website.

Click here to see this week’s CBS Doc Dot Com about my trip to Camp Shane.

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