By Jerri Stroud, BBB Editor
Jean Huelsing said she was inspired to start Living Well Village nearly a decade ago after seeing overweight children suffering from a variety of illnesses normally seen in adults. She’d been a registered nurse for 20 years.
Huelsing said she found it shocking that so many children were suffering from diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. She wanted to do something to help children reclaim their health and build self-efficacy.
“I decided to step up and be part of the solution,” Huelsing said as she puttered around the village in her golf cart recently. She’d like to see a world where no child would have adult disease and no one dies from preventable illness.
The village is on a 250-acre plot near Imperial, Mo., with wooded hills and a lake. It’s home to Camp Jump Start, the nation’s only nonprofit weight loss camp. Huelsing prefers to call it a “healthy lifestyle immersion camp” because it focuses on building a child’s self-image and healthy habits, not just losing weight.
The camp opened in 2003, and in 2006, the camp became a nonprofit, Living Well Foundation, which is now a BBB Accredited Charity. Huelsing says that 90 cents of every dollar donated is used to further the foundation’s mission.
The foundation offers a summer weight loss camp for children 9 to 17 years old, wellness programs for college students, weekend adult programs and distance learning for campers and their parents after they attend camp.
Children come to Camp Jump Start from all 50 states and 20 foreign countries, paying $4,000 for a four-week session or $7,295 for eight weeks. Some scholarship aid is available from donations by parents of past campers, but it doesn’t cover demand.
Before children arrive, parents are asked to fill out a 30-page application with detailed information on the child’s health, dietary and other habits. Huelsing tries to screen out campers with severe eating disorders and emotional problems. Even so, she’s found that about 5 percent of campers had attempted suicide before coming to camp. None have made attempts after attending camp, she said.
The first day at Camp Jump Start begins with an early wake-up call. Campers are weighed and have breakfast. After that, they have to run 6.5 laps around the camp’s track, the equivalent of a mile. That’s after they walk up the hill to the track.
“They don’t like it at first,” Huelsing said. One boy took 18 minutes to complete the run the first day. By the end of camp, he was running it in six and a half minutes.
Campers attend three morning classes, many involving physical activity. After lunch, there’s a class on leadership and then field sports. They swim in the late afternoon, then have dinner, chores and “call time,” a once-daily chance to use cell phones to talk to parents or friends. There’s usually an activity in the evening, “shower hour,” free time and a snack before bed.
“We don’t torture them,” Huelsing said. Everyone is encouraged to participate in all activities and to try new things.
Head counselor Jeremy Simmons has taught many campers, including older teens, how to ride bikes for the first time. He taught one disabled girl who’d been told she would never ride, a feat Huelsing calls monumental.
Simmons can relate to campers because he weighed 245 pounds when he first came as a counselor in 2006. He lost 51 pounds that first summer and is now slim and fit.
“I got my life back,” said Simmons, a math teacher in Pattonville during the school year. He has continued working at the camp because he believes he can make more difference in children’s lives in the eight weeks at camp than in an entire school year.
Halley Felty, a counselor from Kansas City, came to camp after her sophomore year in high school, when she was five feet tall and pushing 200 pounds.
“It turns out to be the best decision I made in my life,” said Felty, now a sophomore at Mizzou. “I am clearly not an ideal weight yet,” she said, and she sweats through classes along with the campers. “I’m not going to ask (campers) to do what I wouldn’t do,” she said.
Huelsing has worked with researchers from several universities on medical and nutritional studies of campers, some of them published in medical journals. Her work has been recognized by the National Institutes of Health.
Huelsing is concerned when she hears parents ask her to “fix” their children when they arrive at camp.
“I tell them their kids aren’t broken, but something in their family lifestyle is,” she said. She tries to get children to see their own value while changing their habits. “Their job as a kid is to figure out what they’re good at and to know that they each have a purpose.”
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