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How Kids Take Control of Their Own Health at Camp ENERGY

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“While environmental factors are not the only factor in obesity risk, they remain one of the most modifiable factors and thus, a target for prevention and treatment.”

As a child, nutrition knowledge comes from what you learn at school, your parents, and potentially some brief interactions with health professionals, like a registered dietitian.  Most children don’t have a say in what their parents purchase at the grocery store each week, what the cafeteria serves for lunch each day, or what they have for dinner each night.  For children, it may feel very difficult to take control of their health and wellness, especially if they don’t have the proper resources to do so.  

In the United States, the prevalence of obesity for children and adolescents is 18.5%, which equates to about 13.7 million people.  Additionally, obesity is twice as prevalent in lower-income groups than it is upper-class children.  Obesity is an epidemic, and it deserves the attention of one. Being obese as a child can lead to long term mental and physical complications, which will become even more difficult to fight as they grow older.  Combining a diagnosis of obesity with little to no information on how to combat it can feel like an impossible task, especially to a child.  

Though solutions may feel scarce, there are options for children in this situation.  It absolutely is possible for them to learn how to take control of their own nutritional health, and lead a healthy, sustainable lifestyle without following harmful “dieting” patterns. 

Every summer, in Millville, PA, a group of volunteers runs Camp ENERGY, a week-long summer camp for children who are overweight, obese, or at risk for becoming so (i.e. one or both parents are obese).  Many of the children also come from low-income families, who may be food insecure or living in food deserts.  

At camp, the children are given a chance to take control of their own health and nutritional wellness.  The focus is not to calorie count or necessarily help the children lose weight over the course of the week, but rather to show them how a healthy lifestyle is achievable through small changes they can make with the support of their friends, family, and counselors.  Between being introduced to the concept of food journaling, using MyPlate to portion out meals, to learning fun but effective workouts that can be done at home, the children leave camp with a plethora of resources to help them take charge of their lives and nutritional care.

When I arrived at camp this past summer, I was surprised to learn that one of the counselors had actually been a camper years ago and was now returning on the other side.  After speaking to the staff, I further discovered he was actually severely obese and had worked to lose that weight over the past few years. His time at camp inspired him to stick to a plan, and prove to the adults in his life he could take responsibility for his health.  Now, years past his time at camp, he has returned to share his inspiring story with the campers in order to show them that positive change is possible.  

The story of Camp ENERGY began more than 10 years ago when it was founded by three people who are still integral to the camp today: Rachel McGarrigle, Jerry Foley, and Nicole Quinlan.  When asked what inspired these three to begin the camp, they responded: 

“Inspiration stemmed from our professional work in healthcare.  Based on our experiences, we believe that education is a key pathway to support children in developing healthy habits early in life, which would then prevent and treat obesity and related health issues. We were inspired to create a program where we would teach and practice healthy lifestyle skills in an environment that was fun and motivating.  Our experience with various camps made the camp environment an obvious choice.”

Once the idea was in place, the trio based their curriculum for camp based on a research study conducted by Geisinger Medical System (in northeastern Pennsylvania) and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  The camp received grant funding from Geisinger, which allowed the founders to get started working on bringing their vision to life. 

Camp ENERGY is housed at Camp Victory in Millville, PA, a “special campground for special kids.”  Throughout the year, the campsite hosts week-long and weekend camps for children and families with diverse needs, such as autism, kidney diseases, and learning disorders.  

The Camp ENERGY staff feels so lucky to have found a home in Camp Victory: “We needed a facility that would accommodate various physical activities and a kitchen staff that would share our goals in serving healthy, delicious food. We are so grateful that Camp Victory has been willing to support our unique partnership.”

As the camp has developed, the staff has the daily routine down to a T, formulated to inspire and educate the children.  So, what does a typical day for campers look like? Counselors wake the kids up around 6:30 or 7, as their first activity of the day begins promptly at 7:30.  Campers have a choice in the morning between a few physical activities, such as swimming, biking, yoga, or tai chi.  

After this, they head to breakfast and write down in their food journal their activity from the morning, as well as what they will have for breakfast.  At mealtimes, the meal is always announced prior to eating, so that the kids can decide ahead of time what they will eat to ensure they hit all areas of MyPlate, and so they can document their meals in food journals provided by the staff.  The hope is that the children will be able to reference their journals once at home and ask parents to cook the meals they enjoyed at camp.  

The kids and counselors eat their meals on a real version of MyPlate, so they can make sure that they are getting the right portions of dairy, protein, grains, fruits, and veggies.  After breakfast, kids are divided into two groups (the older and the younger) and head off to different activities, that could include anything from Zumba or kickboxing, talking about mindful eating or learning about how much sugar is in the cereal they eat.  The group returns all together for lunch, and then shortly heads off to more activities in the evening.  

Usually, in the afternoon, the kids have time to choose their activity, which can include going to the pool, rock climbing and the zipline, or even archery.  There is always time to rest before dinner, and then a camp-wide activity after dinner. Those include glow in the dark capture the flag, a pentathlon, a pool party, a dance party, and a campfire.  All of the activities aim to get each and every child involved and having fun, even if they aren’t on board at the beginning. 

Because half of the campers are usually returning from previous years, it is easy to see the impact that camp has had on their health education and nutrition habits.  They are familiar with the MyPlate and food journals and know which foods at each meal fit into the five food groups. Even more, Camp ENERGY enables children who are most at risk, to receive the nutrition education and support they need. Many of the kids that come to camp ENERGY are from lower-income households or food-insecure communities, where barriers to receiving nutritional care exist. 

When the core staff of Camp ENERGY was asked why they continue to give back each year, their response was impactful, “Health is at the core of our everyday happiness and it is our responsibility to take care of our bodies, and educate and inspire others to do the same.”  

The camps’ founders see this as a crucial time for influencing the lives and futures of the children who come to camp, especially because childhood obesity typically persists into adulthood, so they feel “lucky to catch children at a critical age where [they] can boost their self-esteem and shape their health behaviors for life.”

Overall, the staff comes back to camp each year because of the campers.  According to the core staff: “They are so much fun to be with that week and it is so rewarding when they try a new food, face a fear, or make a new friend. We want them to know there is a community of people working on being healthy every day, and we hope they walk away from camp feeling supported. Beyond the tangible knowledge and skills, we build self-esteem and confidence in each camper, and seeing them be themselves in a supportive camp community makes it all worth it.”

So, what can nutrition professionals do to help children take control of their health and wellness? First and foremost, strive to “educate youth and families about the importance of adopting healthy eating habits and exercising…[and] act as a role model for showing kids how to be healthy. Lower socioeconomic areas often have limited access to healthy foods, so healthcare providers play an important role in providing guidance on ways to obtain nutritious food.” 

How can you help Camp ENERGY specifically? 

Share the Camp Energy website and ask your friends and colleagues to volunteer. The camp is also grateful for any leads on possible grant funding or individual donations, no matter how large or small.

***

This article was written by Morgan Elmore, a Marketing Associate at Healthie.  She is also a junior in the nutrition & dietetics program at NYU.  She attends this camp each year as a volunteer counselor.

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