For lots of kids, summer vacation means taking it easy, hanging out . . . and eating tons of junk food, from corn dogs at the mall to campfire marshmallows.
But for pudgy kids who don't want to get pudgier, summer offers a chance to reinvent themselves.
A slimmer self is the goal at a new weight-loss camp for children 8 to 18. Camp Ojai operates at Villanova Preparatory School during the summer. The private Catholic school vacates the cozy, secluded campus in June, and Tony Sparber's New Image Camps moves in for two months.
If you've seen Disney's "Heavyweights," you might be a little skittish about sending your child to what the movie calls "fat camp." In the film, a bunch of chubby boys run up against the sadistic new owner of "Camp Hope," who raids their candy stash but comically fails at getting the kids to shed any pounds.
At Camp Ojai, the campers lose weight, but it doesn't take cruel methods--only a lot of physical activity and a 1,500-calorie-a-day diet. According to Sparber, kids drop an average of 3.2 pounds a week.
Losing weight doesn't come cheap. Two weeks at Camp Ojai costs $1,550, four weeks is $2,850, and eight is $4,990.
The majority of the children, unhappy about being overweight and wanting to change, are happy to attend the camp, Sparber says.
The camp isn't just for obese youngsters. "There are a tremendous amount of kids who are 15 to 20 pounds overweight," said Sparber, adding that his average camper needs to lose 20 to 25 pounds.
The campers don't have much time to sit around and think about food. They sign on for two activities in the morning and three in the afternoon. They swim and play volleyball, tennis, soccer, softball and basketball and work out with weights, exercise bikes and Stairmasters. The weigh-in is once a week.
Of course, it's not all physical activity. Kids also do arts and crafts and drama. The campus is isolated--and far from doughnut shops and ice cream hangouts--but the youngsters are taken on trips to the beach, Magic Mountain and Universal Studios.
Boys and girls sleep in separate dorms on the 127-acre campus, which backs up against the lush, green mountains that ring Ojai. In the school's dining hall, the menu is designed to be appealing to kids. Once a week, they have a barbecue with burgers. Another night it's tacos, even pizza. Dessert might be low-fat frozen yogurt, diet gelatin or diet pudding. Once a week, they get a treat like angel cake. Snacks are usually fruit. They eat all light-style breads and drink diet soda or nonfat milk.
That's not to say there isn't any cheating. In the movie, campers arrived with candy strapped to their bodies. Last summer in Ojai, one kid was caught with a bag of pistachio nuts; it was confiscated.
Does the camp's weight-loss program work permanently? About 50% keep the weight off or lose even more, but the other half regain some or all of it, Sparber said.
The key to a child's weight-loss success, he maintains, is support from parents.
"If people think they can go to camp, then go back to the same environment, they are doomed to failure," he said. Instead of parents' buying video games, they need to invest in a treadmill and make some lifestyle changes at home, he said.
Sparber, 39, knows all about the problems of dieting for children. He grew up in New York City and was an overweight 13-year-old when his father opened a Weight Watchers camp for kids.
"I lost 30 pounds, and my whole life changed," said Sparber, who went on to play basketball in high school and college. "It turned me around socially--I (had been) shy and I lacked self-confidence."
He spent 10 years as the executive director at Weight Watchers summer camps. Then he and his wife, Dale, started their own New Jersey-based New Image Weight-Loss Camps. Aside from Ojai, they have a camp in Connecticut and plan to open one in Florida. This is the second summer for the Ojai camp, which is run by a couple employed by Sparber.
Once camp is over, campers haven't heard the last of Sparber. He calls them at least once a month to get an update on their weight battle.
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* WHAT: Camp Ojai, a weight-loss camp for kids.
* WHEN: June 25-Aug. 19.
* WHERE: Villanova Preparatory School, 12096 Ventura Ave., Ojai.
* HOW MUCH: $1,550 for two weeks, $2,850 for four weeks, $4,990 for eight weeks.
* CALL: (800) 365-0556.
* FYI: Open house for prospective campers at the Villanova school is April 22, from 11 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 4 p.m. Reservations are required.