When Kids' Summer Camp Becomes a Place to Shed Pounds

"Nightline" followed two kids' weight-loss journey at Camp Shane in New York.

August 28, 2014, 11:32 AM

— -- Summer camp is an annual rite of passage for thousands of children, but for kids like 11-year-old Audrey Gordon and 12-year-old Brian Erbis, camp wasn’t just a place to have fun, but a place to lose weight.

Brian and Audrey, both of New York, were two of 600 children who this summer attended Camp Shane, a weight-loss camp in Ferndale, New York.

Camp Shane has been around since the 1960s and back then, their programs just focused on weight loss. Now, their programs spend a lot of time on getting at the emotional triggers for over-eating and aim to launch long-term lifestyle changes.

“It’s about discovering when and why you’re overeating but then it’s a question of coming up with making a plan,” said David Ettenberg, who owns and runs the camp. “In a notebook, write down ‘OK, I know when I get home, I’m going to immediately -- instead of overeating -- I’m going to have a fresh fruit and take a walk with a buddy.’”

Childhood obesity is a growing epidemic. In 2012, one out of three children were overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It’s sparked a new wave of programs and businesses to help children lose weight -- from First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, to CrossFit for Children programs.

For Brian, Audrey and their families, the solution to shedding pounds was weight-loss camp.

Camp Shane’s motto is “weigh better than a fat camp.” They host three-week, six-week and nine-week sessions and claim their campers will lose 10 to 15 pounds in three weeks, 20 to 25 pounds in six weeks and 30 to 35 pounds over nine weeks.

Both Audrey and Brian opted for the six-week session. In fact, as she was packing her bags, Audrey said it was her idea to go to Camp Shane.

“Camp Shane is known for its amazing weight loss, and their campers having a lot of fun," she said. "I’m hoping to have fun while losing weight.”

At 4-foot-6, Audrey weighed 114 pounds before she started camp.

“I’ve been told by a lot of people including my doctor that I’m overweight, and I’d just like to be healthy again, because, I don’t know, there’s a lot of health risks, and... I’d also like to look and feel better,” she said. “I feel like once I feel like I look better, I will feel better, and I’ll feel more confident, and that’ll show.”

Her mother Miranda Gordon also hoped losing weight at camp would help her daughter gain confidence.

“I want her to understand that she’s in control of her choices, and I want her to get her body to a place that feels so good that she doesn’t want it to be any other way,” Gordon said. “I want to see her standing in front of the mirror and smiling. I want to see her trying on a new dress and prancing around because she knows she looks great.”

For Brian, who weighed 225 pounds at the start of camp, six weeks was the longest he had ever been away from home and he was nervous.

“Even though everyone’s in the same scenario as me, I would be scared to just not be with my parents and my sister for a long amount of time,” he said.

His mother Carol Tappen said she found Camp Shane after researching weight-loss camps online. She hoped it would motivate Brian to exercise more and enjoy it.

“[Brian] likes to just sit in front of the computer and he could program anything, fix anything, but when it comes to exercising, he lacks in that department,” Tappen said. “He’d rather walk than run, he’d rather say something hurts than do it, meanwhile, nothing hurts… I’m very excited to see the change in Brian when he comes home.”

Camp Shane has five locations in New York, Arizona, California, Georgia and Texas. Ettenberg said since they expanded in 2007, they have seen an increase in the number of campers at each location. The camp fee starts at $3,890 for three weeks, but Ettenberg said they also run a non-profit camp program for economically disadvantaged families, where the cost is $1,000.

The ever-expanding childhood obesity epidemic is shifting Camp Shane's weight loss programs away from just diet-and-exercise regimes, to focus on the psychological side of eating, Ettenberg said.

Audrey believes she became overweight because she eats when she is emotional.

“I was a very average weighted child ... up until I was 5. Then my parents got divorced and then it just skyrocketed and I was all of a sudden like, heavy,” she said. “I think it made me emotionally eat. All of a sudden, if I was sad, I didn’t want to be sad, so I was going to eat so I wouldn’t be sad.”

Brian too said he used food as a source of comfort after being bullied at school.

“People were making fun of me left and right. I couldn’t turn a corner in the hallway without being made fun of,” he said.

The Camp Shane staff said the healthy eating and exercise habits they teach their young campers over the course of the summer will help makeover their bodies and their minds. Ettenberg said the camp also sends information home to parents encouraging them to get rid of junk food and to serve individual plates of food instead of family style.

“We ask parents not to eat out so much, portions are too big and they’re too many calories, or if you do eat out, cut the portions, send half of it back right away,” he said.

When the kids arrived at Camp Shane in June, the first stop was the weigh-in, where campers’ weight was recorded and then tracked throughout their stay.

Two weeks into his stay, Brian said he lost 10 pounds and was already noticing a change: “I saw a picture of myself before I came here and I see myself now, I see a little difference.”

Audrey also made progress, discovering that she enjoyed Zumba class for exercise, and learning how to make healthier food choices.

“My diet consisted of a lot of white bread and I didn’t eat that many vegetables, and now this has taught me to eat more vegetables, to eat better proteins, whole grain wheat,” she said after her first two weeks. “The portions here are smaller than I’d eat at home but I also learned that I don’t really need that much food.”

But both campers faced challenges ahead. For Brian, his homesickness spiked after his parents visited for the camp’s Parents’ Day. At one point, Audrey had to decide whether to make the right choice and order a healthy meal at a restaurant during a day trip away from camp. Did Brian Audrey make it through the full six weeks of camp? Did they lose weight and were able to keep it off? Find out what happens on “Nightline” tonight at 12:35 a.m. ET.

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