Camp Jump Start, a Physical and Emotional Journey to Whole Health

As a registered nurse, Jean Huelsing has cared for people in every stage of life. All of her training and experience, however, could not prepare her for a trend she began seeing among her youngest patients. “Kids with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, fatty liver disease, bone deformities, hormonal disturbances and mental illness – adult diseases in children that we didn’t have in my generation. And it all ties back to unacceptable rates of childhood obesity,” she says.
Today, more than one in three adolescents is obese or overweight. Turning her focus from treatment to root causes, Huelsing started a whole health summer camp for kids in 2003 – a movement, really – to address weight as a symptom of a myriad of other issues. Camp Jump Start, as its name implies, is about providing kids with enough knowledge and tools for them to get a jump start on a new lifestyle, says Huelsing. The camp is an endowment client of YouthBridge.

“While they are losing pounds, this isn’t a weight loss camp,” she says. “We are teaching them how to live a healthy life – physically and emotionally – how to like themselves, be social, walk with confidence, not be a victim. They are learning that the best care is self care and realizing how good it is to ‘feel good.’” Lessons Huelsing hopes the kids will carry with them throughout life.

Some 200 kids – ages 9 through 18 – will attend either four or eight-week sessions during the summer at the 250-acre site in Imperial, MO. Days are filled with nutrition education, strength development, fun outdoor activities – an immersion into healthy living – as well as self-defense and leadership classes, and other life skills training. Campers are limited to one hour each day of “screen time,” instead playing “like kids were meant to play,” says Huelsing. The program, designed by exercise scientists, dieticians, physical therapists and other health professionals, has evidence-based outcomes published nationally and internationally in peer-reviewed journals, and is the only residential summer camp of its kind run as a nonprofit.

On average, campers lose 7-10% of body weight, and some are also able to shed medications they’ve depended on for diabetes, hypertension and other conditions. They first notice the difference when their pants start falling down during activities and they can look down and see their feet, says Huelsing. At graduation, campers wear aprons holding the amount of weight they’ve lost, both shocking and motivating their parents and siblings to also live healthy, because as she explains, “when you change a child, the whole family changes.” The camp now offers parents weekends in the spring and fall.

There’s an even greater weight lifted for them, according to Huelsing – and that’s an emotional awakening. “They’ve been scarred by bullying, some by self-harm, some by pain buried down deep,” she says. An early exercise includes having each camper write a love letter to his or her self, which often reveals feelings that have never been shared. “We had one young man open up about his father’s suicide when he was 2-years-old and how he’d blamed himself ever since. We helped him put that falsehood to rest and write a new narrative for his life.”

To learn more about the transformations at Camp Jump Start, check out this PBS documentary:

Weighed Down…Finding Hope for Childhood Obesity