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One Day at a Time
Scenes From a Recent Visit to Wellspring Academy of the Carolinas

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

6:55 a.m. CARDIO IN THE MORNING

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.

The 14-year-old, who arrived just after New Year's Day against her will, is on a three-day "solo." One of the most serious punishments, solos are reserved for violating "nonnegotiables," as the rules against sexual contact or physical aggression are called. Blakely was caught kissing two boys in a single week.

Usually "solos" are packed off to Camp Hope, a Wellspring summer camp 45 minutes away. There they must refrain from talking, cook their own deliberately bland food and reflect on their misdeeds under the supervision of staff. Students at the California campus are sometimes sent to a wilderness or boot camp to "refocus."

Because Camp Hope is unavailable, Blakely spends her solo on campus in isolation. She must sleep in a chilly room by herself and eat meals away from her classmates, and she is forbidden to talk to them or attend class. She was also reduced in rank to the first level, which she fears, correctly, will torpedo her first trip home to Jeffersonville, Ind., the following month.

"I made bad choices," Blakely said, adding that she understood why she was being punished. Her parents were furious and told her that if this was part of a plan to get kicked out, it wouldn't work. "I have thought of running away," she said, but decided against it. Dorm doors and windows are alarmed, and the school is in the middle of nowhere. She's not the first to consider bolting; enrollment contracts allow parents to be billed for "runaway expenses."

Her father, Larry Wilder, said he supports the disciplinary action. Wilder, a lawyer, described his youngest child and the only one with a weight problem as sweet, "but probably as good at manipulating adults as many adults. I think it helped her understand that nonnegotiable means nonnegotiable."

Some parents object to solos as unjustified or overly punitive. Others question whether they should withdraw a child who calls crying about being homesick or miserable, Bishop said. "A lot of times I have to talk to parents about being parents. I say, 'If your child had cancer, would this be up for discussion?' Usually they get on board."

Like many students, Blakely said her life at home had been difficult: Her parents recently split up, a grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and classmates called her "Miss Piggy." Switching schools hadn't helped.

Food has been her enduring source of comfort. Many days she downed 15 cans of Coke and consumed a tube of cinnamon rolls. "I didn't have many friends, so I came home and watched TV and went to bed," she said.

Although there are cliques at Wellspring and "a lot of drama," Blakely said, it's much easier to be surrounded by people familiar with the stares, sniggers and other humiliations routinely visited on obese teenagers. "We were all the fat kids and know what it's like," she said, adding that she's adjusting to Wellspring and likes it better than when she arrived.

While shared suffering can inspire touching acts of kindness, it also breeds bullying, behavior that Bishop said the staff spends a lot of time combating. "As the weight comes off, they act out and do [what was done to them] to other kids."

1 p.m. "SPLENDAHOLICS"

Students surge toward the kitchen serving window, where one precisely measured serving of lunch -- a choice of beefalo or garden burger, bun optional -- and a dessert await, along with a low-fat split pea soup and an unlimited supply of diet soda. The large camp kitchen with its walk-in freezer is locked at night to remove temptation and is off-limits during the day. Students say they like the food and are rarely hungry, even though they exercise about three hours a day.

All food is dubbed "HOP friendly" because it meets the low-fat, high-fiber requirements of the Healthy Obsession Program devised by Chicago psychologist Daniel Kirschenbaum, Wellspring's clinical director. Three meals are supplemented by an afternoon and evening snack and total about 1,200 calories of foods called "controlleds," which are rationed; there are no second helpings.

"Uncontrolleds," which are supposed to teach portion control, may be eaten in any quantity and are available at all meals. Choices include fresh fruit and salad bar items as well as fat-free yogurt and cottage cheese. Juice is banned, but skim milk is available, as is Crystal Light soda, which many students guzzle at breakfast and throughout the day.

By far the most popular item is Splenda, the no-calorie sweetener students consume in quantities food service director Chris Holroyd calls "worrying." Students, some of whom call themselves "Splendaholics," go through more than 500 servings per day. One boy dumps 14 lemon-colored packets into a small bowl of yogurt.

Other strange food practices abound. Some kids drench scrambled Egg Beaters with ketchup, douse baby carrots with mustard or squeeze gobs of no-fat mayonnaise onto tiny pretzels.

Some obesity experts say that binging on artificial sweeteners and ketchup may stimulate a desire for sugar. School officials disagree, characterizing it as harmless adolescent experimentation; they note that the Food and Drug Administration has found Splenda to be safe.

Periodically students are given a chance to test what they have learned through an "off-campus challenge" at a local restaurant.

One-third "will do great, one-third will make mistakes and one-third will gorge" on chocolate cake, Bishop said. "That's fine, too, because these kids have been on such a low-fat diet they come back and throw up. We want to let people try and succeed and try and fail" so they can learn from experience before leaving.

Many students worry about going home for a visit, or for good, and regaining all the weight they worked so hard to lose. Some confess that the notion of permanently forsaking pizza or ice cream the way a recovering alcoholic is supposed to forever swear off vodka seems overwhelming.

"If you go out and have pizza with your friends, there's nothing healthy about that," said social worker Susan Borgman, the school's clinical director. She and the other staff tell students they can have pizza made with low-fat sauce and low-fat cheese instead.

2:40 p.m. NUTRITION CLASS

Four girls discuss how they will cope when they return home.

Sarah Grace Beaty, 15, of Charleston, S.C., muses about what to do when her family goes to a favorite festival where fried food is a main attraction.

"Eat before," said her roommate Tracy Ostrofsky of Houston, who wonders how she will handle Passover.

One girl mentions that her father routinely eats two Big Macs at a single sitting, while Beaty observes that cashews are her favorite snack.

"Wait," says teacher Nan Curry, who is petite and thin. "Cashews are my favorite munchie or used to be my favorite munchie?"

"Used to be," Beaty replies, looking chastened.

The best predictor of success, Wellspring officials say, is leaving with a "clinical blessing": reaching the third level and staying there for 60 days without a serious slip. About 50 percent of students at Wellspring's California campus achieve that, which makes them eligible for a six-month online aftercare program that costs $500 and is refundable if completed successfully.

4:30 p.m. IN THERAPY

Kevin Mayburn, 16, his elbows propped on his knees, hunches forward and nervously fiddles with his hands as he faces Katie Busch, his "behavioral coach," or "BC," Wellspring parlance for therapist. BCs meet with students at least once a week and regularly call parents to discuss progress and other issues, such as how to prepare for a visit home. The school also holds occasional weekend workshops on campus for parents, more than half of whom have significant weight problems, school officials said.

Individual and group behavior therapy, Bishop said, is designed to shore up shaky self-esteem and "change the self-talk, like 'Diets don't work for me.' "

Kevin arrived Jan. 14 weighing 360 pounds. A high school football player from Livonia, Mich., this is his first time away from home, and, like others, he is struggling with separation and homesickness. The previous night, one of his roommates had to be taken to the emergency room for a medication problem, and Kevin remains shaken by the experience. "I thought he had had a stroke," said Kevin, whose mother has suffered life-threatening medical problems. He is still grieving for his stepfather, who died a year ago.

He tells Busch he's often tired and has been clashing with a counselor who accuses him of slacking off.

"I do everything except wake up in the morning," complained Kevin, one of the no-shows at dawn cardio, his eyes downcast.

Busch listens sympathetically and urges him to focus on the good things about losing weight. "Here you have support from a lot of people who really want the best for you," she says. Kevin looks dubious.

10 p.m. LIGHTS OUT

Tracy Ostrofsky sits on the dusty floor of her dorm room, which is littered with clothes, shoes and papers. She tosses athletic clothing and gear into a large duffel bag, hurriedly packing for a weekend caving trip that will depart early the next morning.

Much of what she is taking arrived that day in a package sent by her mother, opened, as are all packages, in the presence of a staff member who inspected it for contraband food or gum.

Talk soon shifts to a favorite topic at Wellspring: imagining what people will say when slimmed-down students return home.

In Ostrofsky's case, the reaction may be less dramatic than most. A skilled lacrosse player, she arrived barely 30 pounds overweight and looks little more than chubby. At 16, she is a veteran of summer fat camps, diets and personal trainers. She keenly feels the contrast with her older sisters, identical twins and high school co-valedictorians who have always been thin. Tracy could never keep the weight she lost off for long.

The daughter of a Houston Internet entrepreneur, she arrived in February, after boys in her high school computer class pulled up a photograph of her at a cotillion dance, looking stunning, but not skinny, in a turquoise dress.

"I thought I looked amazing, but people were laughing at me," said Tracy, who burst into tears in class. "It was a turning point. I had to get out of there."

Like many of her classmates, Tracy kept her destination secret, saying only that her parents were sending her to boarding school out of state. "They'll find out where I was when I get back," she said.

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