Wellspring New York is a weight control and healthy lifestyle summer camp for adolescent girls and young women, located on the campus of Paul Smith's College, in the Adirondacks Mountains, near Saranac Lake, in upstate New York. Wellspring is one of Aspen Education's Healthy Living Academies, which also includes the Academy of the Sierras, a co-ed program in California.
With a current enrollment of about 170, Wellspring New York is the largest single program in the Aspen Education system. Campers range in age from 14 to 24 and can enroll in either the 4 or 8-week program. Most stay for the full 8 weeks of the summer. Following her stay at Wellspring, each girl receives 3 months of aftercare via the internet, which may be extended. The cost of the aftercare is included in the tuition, which, for the summer of 2006, is $7950 for the full 8-week program. I was told that part of this tuition cost is often covered by medical insurance, and the aftercare fee is reimbursed if the camper is compliant with the aftercare program.
A typical day at Wellspring consists of many physically based outdoor and indoor activities, such as volleyball, canoeing, ultimate Frisbee and fitness training, along with classes in nutrition and cooking. There is also a twice weekly CBT group that is focused on weight control issues and weekly individual therapy. Yoga, hiking, movies and computer are some of the other activities available to campers.
Molly Carmel, clinical director of the Academy of the Sierras during the academic year, also serves as clinical director of Wellspring during the summer. I met with Molly on my visit, and she explained more about the healthy living lifestyle approach used at Wellspring New York and the other Healthy Living Academies run by Aspen Education. According to Molly, Wellspring utilizes the harm reduction model of obesity treatment that was developed by Dr. Daniel Kirschenbaum, PhD. A psychologist at Northwestern University Medical School, Dr. Kirschenbaum serves as the clinical director of the Healthy Living Academies.
In the harm reduction approach, a decrease in fat consumption, regular journaling of food intake and exercise are each important factors in weight loss. Wellspring campers are taught that consumption of all types of fat should be restricted and that effective weight control involves daily journaling of meals and snacks in order to increase awareness of one's eating habits. Exercise, which can range from strenuous workouts to moderate walking, is encouraged, while being a "couch potato" is strongly discouraged. For example, as one of the campers pointed out to me, "There's no reason you can't get on the treadmill when you're watching TV!"
During my visit, I joined the campers for a tasty lunch which was served in the Paul Smith's cafeteria. It featured a low fat but spicy spring roll, rice and a salad. Fruit and low fat cottage cheese were also available.
I sat at a lunch table with three teens two from the Southeast and one from the West. All three of the kids seemed knowledgeable regarding the elements of the harm reduction model, as well as quite committed to it. In keeping with the Wellspring philosophy, they all focused on the importance of a healthy lifestyle. They focused much less on how much weight each had lost, even though this was considerable. For example, I was surprised to learn that one of them, an attractive youth of near average weight had earlier in the year needed surgery to remove an internal organ that had been damaged bya prior history of unhealthy eating and morbid obesity. I also noted that, consistent with the Healthy Living Academies' perspective, the three kids had had some psychological problems along with their obesity, and the successful treatment of their obesity also seemed to address many of these psychological problems.
While at Wellspring New York, I had the opportunity to sit in on a nutrition class and a cooking class. In the nutrition class, led by a young woman studying nutrition at a college in the Midwest, about 20 girls satin a college classroom discussing the movie "Supersize Me," which they had seen earlier. The class discussion was informal, though organized nicely by the young teacher who used the blackboard to emphasize certain important points about the movie. She also had the girls engage in a hands-on activity designed to give them a better sense of serving and portion size. The girls seemed attentive and engaged for both parts of the lesson.
The cooking class took place in one of the teaching kitchens used by the culinary arts program at Paul Smith's College. The instructor was a former restaurant chef who, I was told, was now transitioning to become a culinary arts teacher. She was showing the girls how to make a low fat vegetable dip out of fat free cream cheese, herbs, spices and roasted green pepper. At the end of the lesson, all of us got a chance to sample the dip with some fresh vegetables. Though I've never been a fan of cream cheese dips, I did think it was tangy and pretty tasty.
Wellspring New York accepts girls between the ages of 14 and 24. Each camper must be at least 20 pounds overweight. The program is not equipped to serve girls who are significantly below average in intelligence, actively psychotic, or who actively engage in self-harming behavior, such as cutting. However, the program is designed to accept and work with overweight girls who do have significant emotional or behavioral problems, as long as they are stable upon entry.
About the Author: Stephen Migden, PhD, is a psychologist and educational consultant who works with behavior disordered, emotionally disturbed and learning disabled students of all ages. His office is in Roslyn Heights, New York. Visit Dr. Migden's website at www.psychologicalandeducationalservices.com or call 516-625-0824 for more information.