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Marcus McNeill, 12, of Greenville, demonstrates a strength exercise to Dr. Walter Pories, ECU professor of surgery, and Dr. Sharon Sarvey, ECU assistant professor of nursing, at Camp Timber Creek, a program for overweight children in Lenoir. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Camp Gives Youth a Jump-start on Weight Loss

By Doug Boyd

A summer camp with East Carolina University ties is helping heavy youth lose weight as quickly as with gastric-bypass surgery, and researchers are now working to find ways to keep the weight off.

Camp Timber Creek near Lenoir in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains hosts approximately 100 youth each summer for up to eight weeks. While there, boys and girls age 10 to 18 learn how to cook and eat more healthfully, exercise and build self-esteem.

Five area youths who are patients of ECU Physicians attended the camp this summer. On average, campers arrived measuring 5-foot-5 and weighing 198 pounds, according to Chris Cooper, a second-year ECU medical student who‰s working on a research article about the camp with Dr. Walter Pories, ECU professor of surgery and biochemistry and a bariatric surgery pioneer. According to Cooper‰s figures, campers left Camp Timber Creek an average of 17 pounds lighter, with a weight-loss range of 14 to 55 pounds. They also lost an average of 13 total inches from their waists, hips, thighs, arms, necks and chests. Overall, campers lost 9 percent of their body weight and reduced their body mass index by three points. Those numbers are comparable to what bariatric surgery patients accomplish in the first few weeks after their operations.

,Camp Timber Creek is very intriguing,Š said Dr. David Collier, an assistant professor of pediatrics and associate director of the Pediatric Healthy Weight and Treatment Center at ECU. ,It has shown me some kids I thought were so far out , can successfully lose a lot of weight. The bad news is when they come back. Many if not most of them gain all of that weight back.Š

Will Ellis of Snow Hill knows that. Will, who will be 15 this month, went to Camp Timber Creek last year weighing 281. He lost 39 pounds. Over the winter, he regained 29 pounds. Will returned this year with the help of a scholarship. After five weeks, he had lost nearly 40 pounds.

,Sometimes it‰s tiring,Š Will said of the workouts. ,You may hate it sometimes, but if you think about it, you like it.Š

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Tarjenay Smith, 10, of Greenville lost 12 pounds in her first five weeks at Camp Timber Creek.

Camp Timber Creek is held on the campus of the Patterson School. Its 1,400 acres give campers plenty of room to roam and lots of variety in how they exercise.

A typical day starts with a 7:30 a.m. wake-up, followed by a healthful breakfast, exercise and sports. A rest period follows lunch, then the afternoon is filled with activities such as swimming, arts and crafts, drama class, nature walks, even belly dancing for the girls. Boys and girls also take nutrition and cooking classes. The nutrition and cooking classes are a key ingredient to helping the children make long-term changes in their lifestyles, camp leaders said.

Lifestyle changes and support are important. When Dr. Sharon Sarvey, an ECU assistant professor of family and community nursing who‰s looking for ways to help youth keep the weight off, asked past camp participants such as Will what would help them keep weight off, the children said regular contact with fellow campers would help a lot.

,We need something where we can go talk to each other, just a support group, basically,Š Will said. ,If you just go home and try it by yourself, you‰re going to fail. I slipped off my diet and gained weight. The reason I gained some of it is because I grew (taller). But most of it is I slacked off.Š

As a result, Will, plus the other four local youth who attended Camp Timber Creek will attend a support group and related programs this fall and winter at Greenville‰s ViQuest Center, the wellness center of University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina. The program includes nutrition and exercise education as well as aerobic exercise classes in which children and occasionally parents actively participate. The goal is to keep the weight off, and Sarvey will determine what works best.

Childhood weight problems are drawing attention for good reason. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 percent of adolescents 12 to 19 years old are overweight. The same percentage of children 6 to 11 are overweight. The problem gets worse as they get older. The CDC reports 64 percent of adults 20 and older are overweight or obese.

From 1976-1980, 6.5 percent of boys and girls 6 to 11 were overweight, and 5 percent of adolescents 12 to 19 were heavy. In its 2004 report on the state of the nation‰s health, the agency says that while the overall health of Americans continues to improve, ,Overweight and obesity, and physical inactivity among both adults and children are significant risk factors for several chronic diseases, including diabetes, and these indicators have not shown improvement.Š

Collier said being 10 or so pounds overweight is becoming the new norm. ,Our eyes are recalibrated to no longer see children as overweight,Š he said. Using just visual cues, health care providers spot only one- or two-thirds of overweight children. That‰s why he supports calculating the body mass index of children as a matter of routine at physician practices.

The outlook once teens become adults isn‰t promising, either. The 2005 N.C. Women‰s Health Report Card, released in August, tracks changes between 1999 and 2003 in dozens of health measures, among women 15 years and older. According to the report, one in four women in North Carolina was considered obese in 2003, and researchers noted that 28 percent got no regular exercise.

Back at Camp Timber Creek, a lunch break turns into a mini pep rally when Pories, who also sits on the camp advisory council, visits. The camp, he tells the boys and girls, is a way for them to learn how to change their lives and control their weight before major surgery is their last resort.

,If we‰re successful, then I‰m going to be out of business,Š Pories said. ,Surgery is not the answer to obesity. The answer to obesity is what you‰re doing here. So your job is to put us out of business.Š

Camp founder Ira Green has experience with fighting obesity. Not only has he worked at similar camps, but he also underwent bariatric surgery himself, performed by Pories. Green knows the challenges his camper face.

,When I was 12, I was over 200 pounds,Š Green said. ,When I graduated high school, I was 340.Š Green described the camp as a ,jump-startŠ to a lifetime program of weight management, exercise and nutrition.

Attending Camp Timber Creek isn‰t cheap. Each week costs approximately $1,000. Scholarships are available, as is assistance from local foundations, such as the Pitt Memorial Hospital Foundation, which gave $46,300 to send children to camp this summer and fund the post-camp program at ViQuest. Last year, the foundation gave $30,000.

But mostly, it‰s parents paying the bill. ,A lot of parents do sacrifice a lot,Š Green said. ,They‰ll cash in their 401(k)s. But what would you do to save your child‰s life?Š

Sarvey, the nursing professor, knows first-hand what the children face. After battling her weight for years, she had gastric-bypass surgery in August 2003. Now, she‰s looking for ways the children can keep the weight off.

That‰s where ideas such as the support group and the lessons learned at Camp Timber Creek come in. As camper Marcus McNeill, 12, of Greenville, who had lost 23 pounds in five weeks, said: ,I‰ve already called my grandma and told her we are going to start exercising when I get home.Š

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This page originally appeared in the Sept. 2, 2005 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at