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Weight lost, confidence found

August 18, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

With the support of a local nonprofit group, a Hagerstown teenager recently took a big bite out of a weight-gain battle that has bruised her self-esteem and made her a target for ridicule among her peers.

Longtime Girls Inc. member Britany Martin, 16, gained in self-confidence what she lost in pounds during a rigorous seven-week program at the nation's top weight-loss camp. Girls Inc. funded her $7,000 stay at Camp La Jolla in San Diego, with the condition that Britany record her daily experiences there in a journal and share the nutrition and fitness lessons she learned at camp with younger club members.

Founded by Nancy Lenhart - a nationally recognized expert on adolescent weight loss, Camp La Jolla strives to help teens and others attain personal and fitness goals through education, encouragement and support. The camp's program includes sports and physical activities, group and individual interaction, food nutrition and behavior modification classes, fun field trips and follow-up support with camp counselors, according to the Camp La Jolla Web site at www.camplajolla.com.

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The camp has been featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and in a number of national publications.

Girls Inc. Executive Director Maureen Grove thought the experience might brighten the life of one of the club's most dedicated members - a girl who "hit rock bottom" in April after receiving the latest in a string of weight-related insults from her peers, Grove said.

"Britany has always been smart and positive, but I'd never seen her so down after she found that nasty note in her locker. I didn't want to lose her," Grove said. "I felt like she was ready for this. It was a lot to spend on one child, but she was worth it to us."

Lenhart lent emotional support to Britany - who has been a Girls Inc. member for more than a decade and now works part time and volunteers daily at the club - via e-mail for weeks before the agency's directors approved the camp expenditure, Grove said.

Britany sat down to talk about her lifelong problem with obesity and her hopes and expectations for Camp La Jolla before she departed for California on June 22.

"It's the best feeling in the world to know that I'm going to be around the same kinds of people, that I'm not going to be called a whale or anything else," she said. "It's hard to figure out why people hate you because of how much you weigh. I've been picked on about my weight since the third grade. In high school, I thought it would end, but it hasn't. It's unbelievable how mean people can be."

Britany tried a variety of diets in her quest to shed pounds. She went through a phase in which she ate only grapefruit. She followed the Atkins Diet's admonitions to avoid carbohydrates and stock up on protein. She experienced the most success with Weight Watchers, losing more than 20 pounds since she joined in September 2002, she said.

But it wasn't enough.

The teasing continued. Her self-esteem plummeted each time she went shopping for new clothes. She ran out of breath when she climbed stairs. Britany grew increasingly depressed about her weight, she said.

"I'll do anything, absolutely anything, to become healthier. It's not just about losing weight, it's about becoming healthier to gain self-esteem," Britany said. "I know it's going to be a lot of work, but I'm willing to keep at it. I'll just do anything at this point."

Despite her motivation, Britany's accomplishments at Camp La Jolla exceeded even her expectations. The beaming teen talked about her experience - and modeled a pair of jeans that are now too big for her - after she returned from California on Aug. 8. She says the first week was especially tough, but she adapted to the camp's strict fitness and nutrition standards with the encouragement of experienced staff members and the support of other teenagers who have faced the same challenges.

"I felt like I fit in so much," Britany says. "It was overwhelming at first because I really wasn't used to exercising. I never thought I could walk four miles and live to tell about it."

Britany awoke at 6 a.m. daily, walked one mile before a light breakfast - including an egg substitute, cereal with milk and fresh fruit - and participated in such classes as kickboxing, hip-hop and step aerobics, volleyball, basketball and yoga before a light lunch, she says. Campers learned the importance of drinking plenty of water, eating in moderation across all food groups, studying nutritional information on food labels, shopping for healthy foods, and avoiding such calorie-packed treats as soda and fried foods, Britany says.

"I never drank water before. Now I feel like I'm addicted to it," she says. "I don't even want to look at a cheeseburger or fries or anything like that."

Britany's family is supporting her nutritional and fitness efforts by stocking shelves with healthy foods, she said. Britany also plans to join a fitness club with her father, and walk every day with friends or by herself, she said.

Britany lost 22 pounds and two pants sizes at Camp La Jolla. For the first time in her life, she is looking forward to shopping for new clothes to begin her senior year at Washington County Technical High School, she said.

But the weight loss pales in comparison to the positive self-image that Britany gained at camp. She attended regular classes to discuss goals to improve interpersonal relationships and bolster her self-esteem, she said. And she accomplished physical feats - such as completing a four-mile race - that she never thought possible before Camp La Jolla.

"I'm not always putting myself down now. If you don't like how I am, it's not a problem to me anymore. I know I'm a better person than that," Britany says. "I have to love myself."

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