Independence School District sends children to weight-loss camp

Friday, September 14, 2012 | 12:20 p.m. CDT; updated 12:35 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 14, 2012
Kimberly Kuhlman, left, sits with her son Cameron Larkins, 11, on Aug. 22 in Independence. Cameron is being sent to MindStream, a residential school camp in South Carolina where teens work on achieving a healthy body weight, fitness and improving self-esteem. Cameron, a sixth-grader, said he'd like to be about 80 pounds lighter when he returns home.

KANSAS CITY — Too early. Too dark. Kimberly Kuhlman forced herself to let 11-year-old Cameron sleep a little longer.

She'd sprung out of bed at 4 a.m. to reread the startling letter she'd opened late the night before.

The Independence School District was offering to help send her son and 14 other overweight children to a health camp in South Carolina for the entire fall semester.

Now she was studying the camp's website, seeing its promise of a potentially life-changing experience among organic gardens, horses and sports fields.

Boarding school. Kuhlman gulped. Far, far away.

"You've got to understand," she said, reliving her fears of that June morning. "We had tried everything."

She sensed this was an astonishing offer. And that was true. The school district and the camp — MindStream Academy in Bluffton, S.C. — know of no other school district that has taken such a leap in battling childhood obesity.

At 6 a.m., she roused Cameron and pointed him to her computer. She'd left its screen glowing with the illustrated map of a campus rich in emerald trees and blue water and an abundance of activity sites.

"A fatty camp," he said.

It was his first thought as he took it all in.

Then he looked some more, imagining kayaking and swimming, contemplating trampoline games.

"There'd only be kids like you," his mother said. "Everyone there would have the same goals."

She was a single parent. And it had been so hard. So many things had gone wrong.

And there was Cameron Larkins, her youngest son. A strong boy who loves his dogs. Who loves the Schwinn Sting-Ray bike she bought him online with the first paycheck from her new job last spring.

He was an A student, the president of his elementary school's student government.

But also a child picked on over his weight. Bullied. So many of his emotions had been shut down, she said. Even now, when you ask him about it he shrugs it off, saying, "I'm used to it."

She left him alone with the website for a while. Then she ventured back.

"What do you think?"

Independence Superintendent Jim Hinson knows he's asking a lot.

It's a gamble for the families.

It's a gamble for the school district.

Independence is sending 15 children, ages 11 to 17, all at once to a still-growing camp that previously served a total of 20 children over three semesters since it opened in January 2011.

"It's pretty radical," Hinson said.

It wouldn't be the first time Independence has stepped out on a limb.

The district launched full-day community programming in its elementary schools in the 1990s, at the forefront of what would become a nationwide community school movement.

It took on the annexation of western Independence schools from the Kansas City Public Schools in 2007 — a massive undertaking that doubters had long declared legally and politically impossible.

In recent years, noting its own data that more than a third of its students were overweight, the district established several health and wellness programs for students and staff.

The district has been joining with churches and grocers, staking out a role of a school district as a community hub for whole-child health.

All that work was falling short for some children and families whose health risks had surpassed the district's ability to help them, Hinson said.

"My heart-cry over this was that their longevity can be cut short," he said. Frustration kept sounding, he said, from families who were saying, "We've tried everything we can do."

Now the district is turning to a novel camp founded by Ray Travaglione, a South Carolina entrepreneur who has spawned other unusual schools in the state.

He created the International Junior Golf Academy, which led to his Heritage Academy — a "passion-based" school whose mission is to build academic programming around whatever drives a child's interest, whether it be golf, chess or birdwatching.

MindStream is his response to a national health epidemic among children, said Sarah Stone, the director of programming.

"Some kids need a place like this," she said, "to get healthy inside and out."

The industry is dominated by summer camps, mostly on the East and West Coasts, that offer programs generally from two to eight weeks long.

The Independence children will be gone 16 weeks, and that may give them more of a chance to maintain whatever weight-loss and lifestyle changes they achieve.

"When they are at camp, they can be very successful," said Shelly Summar, the weight management program coordinator for Children's Mercy Hospital.

"But if the environment they go back to doesn't change, it's difficult to maintain the weight loss," she said. "That's the biggest challenge."

The district and the families combined will be paying half of MindStream's usual $28,500-per-resident tuition for the semester. The other half is being covered through donations to the Reshape Your Life Foundation, associated with the camp in Bluffton, and by other donors.

The district will be paying amounts at least equal to its general per-student funding plus any of the federal dollars specific to those students with special-education costs, up to a total of about $13,000 for the semester.

The camp is negotiating payment plans with the Independence families, most of them low-income, to pay a portion of the cost. The families will pay some of the costs because the district wants them to have "skin in the game."

The district's foundation is to cover any remaining cost.

The camp has little track record yet.

Hinson's confidence comes from Independence's collaboration with David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. Katz has helped create some of the health and wellness programs under way in Independence schools over the past 10 years.

Katz became the senior medical adviser for MindStream in spring 2011 after he was recruited by Travaglione and saw for himself what was taking shape.

Teenagers were learning whole-life skills, free from bullying, and were making changes they could "pay forward" with their peers when they returned, Katz said.

"I was overwhelmed by the kids there," he said.

Hinson and the school district's health services director visited the camp last spring, he said. They came away with the same impression.

The 20 residents who have gone through the program lost an average of 50 pounds, Katz said. They improved on multiple other fitness and health measures.

The district determined it would try a pilot project for one semester, with the possibility that some students might return in the spring. District nurses recommended students they thought could be helped.

"We're making it available to our families," Hinson said.

"They have to decide if it's right for them."

Which is scarier?

Kuhlman could send Cameron — who has never been on a plane before or stayed one night in a hotel — a thousand miles away for four months.

Or she could continue her desperate search for a way to save her son from the fate his pediatrician foretold in a still-frightening sketch.

Cameron was 9 at the time and rapidly gaining weight. Some of it was lifestyle. Some of it was genetic. His father, who was never part of his family, was an obese man.

The doctor drew an airplane, nose up. He projected its flight with a line over a graph he'd drawn marking Cameron's age along the horizontal axis, and the rising weight on the vertical.

The plane soared past 800 pounds at the age of 21. He likely wouldn't live much past that, if that long, the doctor warned.

Kuhlman had to run outside the doctor's office. She couldn't stop shaking.

Dieting wasn't working enough. Frustration swelled over the higher costs embedded in most healthier food choices.

She and Cameron would partner on the same diet regimen, and she would lose weight but he wouldn't.

The best Cameron could usually manage was to slow his weight gain.

Over the summer, the idea of going to the camp began to appeal to him, he said. He began telling his classmates in summer school that he was going to South Carolina.

"They said, 'Are you crazy?'"

MindStream staff began holding a series of meetings with parents in Independence. The negotiations around cost were intimidating at times, but Kuhlman was staking her hopes on the camp.

Kuhlman reached an agreement on what she could pay.

She got help from friends picking up some of the things Cameron would need, like two pairs of running shoes, a scientific calculator and a laptop for the online courses the Independence students would be taking.

Cameron was setting goals: Lose 100 of his 250 pounds.

"I want to lose weight," he said. "I want to look better, swim a lot and do some fun stuff."

Kuhlman's goal: "To save a child's life."

The staff at MindStream know they bear the burden of these families' lives, Stone said, to help bring them the deserved rewards for "the level of bravery they've demonstrated."

Rain shrouded Kansas City International Airport the last Sunday morning in August.

Security allowed one family member inside the gate for each of the 11 Independence children flying out that day.

They let them go under floods of tears.

The AirTran liner taxied out, and they watched it gather power for takeoff.

Kuhlman had imagined she would watch it all the way, until a speck of a plane disappeared from sight.

But the low clouds swallowed it right off the runway.

She tried to catch her breath. And she lifted a prayer.

"He's only 11 years old. God, please be with him."

So far, so good.

Cameron has survived the expected bout of homesickness, Kuhlman said Friday.

He reports that he's into turkey burgers and making homemade walnut butter.

And he's been to the beach.

His mother is counting the days. Thirteen done. One hundred and seven to go.

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