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School Transforms Teens' Lives, One Pound At A Time

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.

Wellspring student Bethany Gomez, 16, arrived in August from her home in Galveston, Texas. She had already spent two months at Wellspring last year as well as six weeks at a Wellspring summer camp and had lost about 65 pounds. "I'm about halfway there," she says.
/ Travis Dove for NPR
Travis Dove for NPR
Wellspring student Bethany Gomez, 16, arrived in August from her home in Galveston, Texas. She had already spent two months at Wellspring last year as well as six weeks at a Wellspring summer camp and had lost about 65 pounds. "I'm about halfway there," she says.

"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.

Haley Humphrey, 15, of Athens, Ala., lost about 34 pounds at a Wellspring camp last summer.
/ Travis Dove for NPR
Travis Dove for NPR
Haley Humphrey, 15, of Athens, Ala., lost about 34 pounds at a Wellspring camp last summer.

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 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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