BLUFFTON, S.C. - Kimberly Kuhlman clings to a portrait of her 11-year-old son Cameron. She misses him dearly, but she knows that pain will be worth it. The hard part is balancing emotions when he calls.
"Usually the first thing is 'I miss you and I want to come home,'" she says. "And it's hard because at this point I'm ready to scream 'Me too!'"
One thousand miles away, Cameron says that homesickness is tough.
"I mean, there are days when I just want to wake up at home ‘cause I miss my family so much."
But Cameron remains steadfast in his goals. He left his Independence home two and a half months ago in a decision he and his mom made together. When he returns for the Christmas holidays, he expects to be a much different young man.
"So, that's why I'm here," he explains. "Saving my life."
Cameron is one of 13 students from the Independence Public School District spending the semester at MindStream Academy in Bluffton, S.C. Spread across 43 acres, MindStream is located on a former Arabian horse farm. As the sun rises over the ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, smoke floats gently across the water of the lake that sits just east of the giant stables and riding arena.
Yes, this is a boarding school, but it's not a school for students of wealth and privilege. These students see their stay as one amazing and perhaps final opportunity to save their lives.
Emily Beers is in the eighth grade: "I want to lose at least 80 pounds, and I've already lost 30."
Jason Alexander is a junior who wants desperately to follow his family members into the United States Marines. Unfortunately, he won't qualify unless he loses more than 100 pounds.
"I've lost 50 so far so," he says proudly.
Junior Teah Gentry smiles as she explains one of the few downsides of trying to lose a big percentage of her weight – loose-fitting pants.
"Pants sizes, they're going down! They're going down," she laughs.
The 13 Independence students range in age from 11 to 17. The district selected them from a group of more than 100 identified as being severely overweight.
"Really, for us, education is about educating about life," explains Superintendent Dr. Jim Hinson. "And so when we look at what's going on in the lives of our kids today, whether it's social or emotional, behavioral, certainly their physical health issues, part of our responsibility is to help them have a better quality of life."
Cameron, like his peers, is here to take charge of his young life. He admits it was not an easy decision.
"How hard was it for you to get on the plane and come here?" I ask.
"It was really hard," he replies.
"Why did you do it?"
"I did it for me and my family."
That road to a new lifestyle includes hours of daily fitness packed into a day already filled with academics and other curriculum. On this morning the students are spread across the field that borders the lake. They run from station to station, performing the corresponding exercise with their partners. The cheers, grunts, yells and labored breathing can be heard from one end of the field to the other.
The students not only increase their strength and endurance, they are also learning team work and acceptance. These are important factors to many who say they grew up harassed or even bullied because of their weight.
"Second grade," Cameron recalls, "if not first when I got picked on."
"What did people say?" I ask.
"I just didn't really care in first. There was just a couple kids you know, there was just a couple kids, but we got it all straightened out," he said.
The packed schedule includes a variety of activities to teach the students how to process the stress that comes with bullying. Once a week, the students travel off campus for Mixed Martial Arts. Outfitted with gloves and in their bare feet, they run, jump, kick, wrestle and slam punching bags. The stress relieving workout offers ways to overcome the triggers that can lead to anger and overeating.
Proper nutrition is a huge part of the MindStream curriculum as well. The students participate in meal planning, preparation, cooking and cleanup. They even tend a giant garden where they grow their own fruits and vegetables. Portion sizes and ingredients are key, Cameron explains, as he praises Chef Tim Teasdale.
"I like our Chef Tim. He makes the best food ever. And he makes it so filling," he says. "I mean, it's the exact same portions, and he makes it less calories and he makes it a lot healthier."
"These kids are being educated so that if they're left to their own designs, if you will, they'll know how to take care of themselves," explains founder and CEO Ray Travaglione.
Travaglione's mission in life has been connecting young people to their passions through education. He developed the MindStream Academy program
to be sustainable long after the students are home.
"They're taste buds are changing, their want for sugar and sodium has been dramatically diminished," he says. "They're in such a good place that maintaining it is probably just as easy as going back to where they were."
Back home in Independence, Kimberly Kuhlman stares at the closed door to Cameron's bedroom.
"This is his room," she says.
"You keep it closed when he's not here?" I ask.
"I do," she sighs, as she opens the door and steps inside the bright-colored room she painted purple at Cameron's request for his last birthday. This is a lifestyle change for her and other parents as well. Parents receive weekly emails from MindStream to incorporate the entire family into their student's new lifestyle.
"A lot of it, I'd have to say, is my fault," Kuhlman, a single mother, says. "I would say that it would probably go back to the economics end of it. I've always had to work a lot, and I've been away from home a lot."
Sometimes working three jobs to put food on the table, Cameron is often left to prepare that food himself. Kuhlman admits easy and safe doesn't always equal healthy.
"He learned early on, I'd buy things that were easy to prepare or already prepared. Just microwaveable. Things that took very little preparation," she says.
Cameron says being on his own, coupled with a frustration over his weight, often led him to eat more.
"Like if I was out with friends, I'd go home, grab my wallet. ‘Let's go to Taco Bell boys!' Cause I could ride my bike up to Taco Bell," he explains.
As Cameron's weight drops, Kimberly promises to do everything in her power to help him succeed. A doctor's haunting words echo in both their heads.
"The doctor said I wouldn't live past 21," Cameron says stoically.
Kuhlman shudders as she repeats the story.
"There was a lot of discussion on the 50 pounds a year that he was putting on gradually through the physician that had told us at that rate, if his knees and heart held up, that by the time he reached 21, he would weigh over 700 pounds."
Her voice quivers as tears well up in her eyes.
"I am hoping that in everything that he has already achieved, that I can do anything and everything that it takes to help him keep going," she says. "And I would love for him to have the dream that I think all parents have for their children and that is to achieve anything that his heart desires."
Cameron's goal is to become a major league baseball player. MindStream's goal is to get him on and keep him on the right path to realize that dream.
"This has never been done before. This is an unthinkable model, if you will," explains Travaglione. "But if we're going to make a difference, and we're going to affect one child at a time, this is probably the new paradigm going forward."
That's why the MindStream staff works to transform the entire child. Back at the stables, the school's Equine Therapy program brings these students up close and personal with something most students have never experienced. They learn the connection conflict resolution and communication skills to their own relationships.
"When they walk in to working with the horses, we talk about the herd of horses," explains Mental Health Therapist Ann O'Brien. "You know, who's in charge? Who's the dynamic horse? Who's the one that's stirring the pot? Is there one that's a bully right now?"
The students brush them, saddle them, walk them and love them. When they're stubborn and frustrating, they work around them. When they return home, these are life lessons the students will hopefully remember long after their academic textbooks have long been forgotten.
Sitting back on the dock overlooking the lake, Cameron explains that his goal is to lose 100 pounds. He's about a third of the way there. Eight weeks down – eight weeks to go.
"They've been rough. It's not easy," he tells me.
I ask him, "Knowing how hard it is here, if you had to do it all over again, would you still come?"
"I'd definitely come back!"
For more information on MindStream Academy, visit www.mindstreamacademy.com