One Day at a Time

By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008


The sun is just rising as 18 bleary-eyed teenagers straggle out of the dorms and trudge up a steep hill, shivering in 16-degree mountain air. Their destination is a dim, cavernous room in a lodge with knotty pine walls that doubles as a cafeteria and gym. At this boarding school, breakfast is always preceded by an hour of exercise: a workout, volleyball game or brisk walk.

A few boys decide they'd rather sleep. Their absence will be noted on a whiteboard that tracks progress up -- and down -- the five-level system on which privileges including phone calls and visits home are based.

Several students make a beeline for the treadmills and exercise bikes positioned directly in front of a bank of small TVs; they click on MTV. Television is permitted only during workouts.

Santee Wells, 15, who lives on an Indian reservation in Red Wing, Minn., ceaselessly paces the perimeter of the room, iPod ear buds jammed in his ears, accumulating steps on the "pedo" that all students are required to wear from the time they get up until they fall into bed. Wells, whose jeans hang off his newly thin frame, has been at Wellspring the longest and is about to leave. He has lost 106 pounds in seven months and grimaces occasionally.

He will soon discover he has gallbladder disease, the eighth student to suffer the painful ailment so far this year; six, Santee included, have undergone surgery. Rapid weight loss is a risk factor for gallbladder problems, and Wellspring officials have told parents that the school's very-low-fat diet -- fewer than 12 grams per day (about one quarter the amount recommended by Weight Watchers) -- may play a role.

A few students halfheartedly pedal stationary bikes, taking swigs from the giant water bottles they are supposed to tote everywhere. They must also carry a small dun-colored booklet called an "SMJ" -- self-monitoring journal -- to record everything they eat as well as their emotional state, which will become fodder for individual and group therapy.

"The whole point is that just by monitoring yourself you'll improve," said the school's executive director, Michael Bishop, a clinical psychologist who, along with his mostly wiry 20-something staff, follows the same regimen as the students.

Sometimes Santee and his classmates carry around their "chubbies": color snapshots taken the day they were admitted. Students pull out these worn photos when they feel discouraged or depressed as a reminder of their progress.

Santee's is shocking. His chiseled features and now-visible cheekbones are submerged in pillows of fat.

10 a.m. ON SOLO

Everyone is in second-period class except Blakely Wilder, who is wrapped in two sleeping bags inside a green tent in an open-air equipment shed, visible to staff who work in an adjacent heated office. Her algebra book, a letter from home and the latest issue of People magazine spill out of Blakely's backpack. Her feet, she says, are getting numb.

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