Jan. 11, 2013 at 5:13 PM ET
They left their families in Independence, Mo., in September as overweight teens and tweens who had been picked on for being big, who had difficulty making friends and who were feeling bad about their lives.
But when the dozen students returned after three months at MindStream Academy, a weight-loss boarding school in Bluffton, S.C., they had lost a combined 756 pounds, and had gained self-confidence and pride along the way.
One of the students, Jason Alexander, a 16-year-old 11th grader, weighed 330 pounds at his heaviest.
“If you’re big, you usually get teased,” he said in a report that aired Friday on TODAY. “‘Oh, you’re a fatty.’ It really brings you down.”
He and the other students hoped to change all of that by attending the weight-loss program, where they exercised, learned about healthy eating and received counseling.
“I lost 100 pounds,” Jason said. “My self esteem was just through the roof.”
When the group returned home to emotional reunions with their families in December, Jason’s mother didn’t recognize him.
“She was like, ‘Is that you?’” Jason said. “And I see Mom and she’s just crying about how much I lost.”
Sarah Jones, another 11th grader, had also been teased as her weight climbed to 315.
“I overhead someone say, ‘Oh you can't sit there. You're too big for that seat,’” said Sarah, 17. “That was hurtful. I went home that night and I cried.”
Her outlook brightened, though, as she lost weight. “When I got down to about 250 pounds, I said, ‘Wow.’”
The usual tuition at the academy is $28,500 per semester, according to The Associated Press, and was paid for by the Independence School District, the students’ families, donors, and a foundation connected to the academy.
“If we as a school district can take advantage of an opportunity for students and their families to change the course of their life, then that's what we’re going to do,” Jim Hinson, superintendent of the Independence School District, told TODAY.
Cameron Larkins, a 12-year-old sixth grader, said that nobody recognized him when he returned home. “I grew four inches and I lost 65 pounds,” he said.
His weight had topped out at 257, and he wanted to reverse the upward trend.
“I might not live past 21,” he said. “If I did, I'd be 500 or 700 pounds.”
His mother, Kimberly, was thrilled with the results. “We should just feel, really blessed not only for what MindStream has offered them but for what the kids have gone out and really worked hard to lose,” she said.
Tenth grader Chelsea Neely, whose weight had reached 275, recalled not wanting to look in the mirror and having a hard time finding new friends.
She dropped 50 pounds, adding: “I’m smiling a lot more and I think I just have a lot more optimism.”
Her mother, too, is proud of her daughter. “I mean, she’s always made me proud but I’m just even prouder,” said her mom, Christina.
MindStream says it is not a traditional weight-loss facility and calls itself a therapeutic program to help teens reach a health weight, get fit and find self esteem.
“Our emphasis is not on the numbers on a scale, unrealistic diet plans, or hours spent in a gym, but rather self-awareness and regulation. We stress gaining control over one’s life, and healing the whole person,” according to the academy’s website.
Dr. Andrew Bremer, a pediatric endocrinologist at Vanderbilt University, applauded the students’ weight loss. “I think it’s a great thing,” he said. “It demonstrates that this type of program is feasible and I think it would great if there were more of these systems in place.”
He said when overweight children lose weight and gain self esteem, “that’s two huge victories.”
The biggest challenge though, will be when they are back home and whether they have a supportive family environment that will enable them to maintain their healthy changes. After all, he noted, “it was the home and that initial environment that allowed the weight gain to occur in the first place.”
“If the family buys into a healthy maintenance program, the child is much more apt to continue being healthy," he said. “It’s difficult to treat the child without addressing the whole family.”
The children and their families will have to continue to make the effort to stay healthy.
“It really is taking the child being proactive in making food decisions,” he said. “The default Western diet is a bad diet. It takes being proactive to make healthy food choices.”