Camp Kingsmont has horseback riding, friendships, log cabins and camp fires, but s'mores are not on the menu: The average 10-year-old camper weighs more than 100 pounds and is trying to lose weight.
American children are growing more obese, but teaching proper nutrition, exercise and eating habits isn't easy.
Camp Kingsmont, tucked into western Massachussetts' Berkshires mountains, holds weekly classes in nutrition, eating right and fitness. Counselors tackle not just summer weight loss , but self-esteem, and good lifetime eating habits. One goal: helping kids keep weight off once they get home.
And to that end, the children sound like many adults who have struggled to shed unwanted pounds.
"I want to weigh 100 pounds. At least that's my goal," said Syd Meadow, a 10-year-old camper from Chicago.
"Last summer I lost between 40 and 50 pounds, and I put some of it back on, and my goal this summer is to lose all over again and to just really try to keep it off for all the school year," said Liam Bartholomay, 13, from Connecticut.
Beginning this year, there is also a mandatory program for parents to teach them how to support their children's efforts, since so many children tend to backslide and gain weight after camp is over.
Not Fat Camp
Despite its nutrition and fitness emphasis, camp owner Keith Zucker insists that Kingsmont is not a "fat camp."
"Candy is not part of the program here, but if a child comes up to me and says that they really want a candy bar, I'm not going to say no to them," Zucker said. "I will actually get them a candy bar."
And if they ask for French fries or chicken nuggets, he won't deny them. But everything in moderation, and, and nothing deep fried.
"They are healthy if they're served in portions, and when they are served baked rather than fried," he said.
Children at Kingsmont do not have to get on the scales upon arrival, nor are they pressured to be visibly slimmer when they leave. In short, they're expected to lighten up about their weights, even though they are learning good eating habits.
"We don't do before and after pictures," Zucker said. "I want to see a before and after picture from five or 10 years. I don't want to see one for five or 10 weeks. That does nothing."
Bullied for Being Overweight
Camp Kingsmont used to be a fat camp, as Zucker, a former camper there, well knows. In his 10 summers at the camp, the agenda included heavy exercise, including running, calisthenics, and "things we couldn't do," Zucker recalled. "And feeding us very low-calorie food and pretty much not enough food, so we can impress everybody with numbers when we returned home."
The camp didn't live up to the promise. He started camp as a 100-pound child at age 7. When he was 16, he weighed 340 pounds. It was not until high school graduation that Zucker found what worked for him: normal portions and exercise.
His waist shrank eight inches in two years. And at age 23, Zucker bought Kingsmont and transformed it into a safe haven where weight loss takes a back seat to repairing self-esteem. Overweight kids often get bullied.
"I had a friend named Steve, and one day he turned on me. And I was playing a softball game with him, and he said that I was too fat, I couldn't run, I would never be able to be thin," Bartholomay said. "And that just really hurt."
One of his fellow campers agreed.
"Sometimes like, when you walk into a room, you kind a get embarrassed, and stuff like that, like [when] you go swimming," Meadow said.
At the camp, the children are with others like them. So they get a chance to win races, take center stage, and be popular, just like the other kids.
Parents need to play more of a role in recognizing and addressing the situation, too.
"We can't go home with them ...but that's where the parents need to be parents and take responsibility for their kids," Zucker said. "Almost like a parent helping with homework, they have to do the same thing."