What I Learned by Working at a 'Fat Camp'
Before I get into any of it, let's not call it Fat Camp from here on out. Not many people would know what a 'health and wellness camp' was, so I decided to use it in the title, but it's probably one of the worst ways to describe this. This kind of place is aimed to create a welcoming, non-judgmental, growth-promoting atmosphere, so labeling it as a Fat Camp most always leads to things like, well, Heavy Weights references. Let's be honest, that sorta thing comes to most of our minds, so I wanted to explain what it's really like.
After working at one for a summer, I can be sensitive to how these are viewed, but I also know this kind of job isn't exactly your everyday internship. I also realized there isn't much info out there about what it's like to work at one, so I wanted to share with you my experience working as a camp counselor at a wellness camp in La Jolla, CA.
It was my junior year of undergrad studying kinesiology at Penn State. I really wanted to gain some relevant experience over the summer, but deep down knew I didn't want to become a physical therapist like I originally thought. I was researching jobs that were related to exercise and nutrition and kept stumbling upon these wellness camps and retreats.
"No way am I going to work at one of these. I've never heard of anyone doing something like this. I don't want to just go around slapping doughnuts out of kid's hands and making them run around."
Boy was I wrong. And could I BE any more insensitive? (Queue Ross Geller voice)
So I researched health and wellness camps around the country and realized they're more prevalent than I thought. I found one called Wellspring that stuck out to me. It combined fitness, nutrition AND a psychological component. There were behavioral therapists, which is so important because being healthy is so much more of a mindset/psychological thing than we sometimes think.
I applied (without telling anyone), interviewed, and found out a couple months later I got it! I booked a flight from Philly to San Diego not knowing I was going to have one of the hardest, but most rewarding summers of my life.
Here are some things I learned that summer.
1. My view on Fat-Shaming Changed. A lot.
Before this camp, my thoughts on fat-shaming and overweight people were pretty, well, standard. I basically thought I was accepting because I would never ever do something like make a comment about someone's weight. I only superficially knew people's weights were just numbers, having nothing to do with their personalities.
I use the word superficially because until I worked at Wellspring, I think I subconsciously thought overweight people were lazy. I mean, come on, being overweight means someone isn't waking up early to hit the gym in the morning, making sure their meals are prepped for the day, or saying no to the things in life we all know and love (pizza, ice-cream, fries with extra bacon and cheese), right?
Wrong. Some kids attending this camp suffered from food addiction. We tend to see addictions to drugs and alcohol as serious and as things we can't just say no to and life is all dandy again. Somehow food doesn't fall under those categories to most of us and is seen as something we all should be able to control.
Kids also come from uneducated or low-income families and areas. If you were never taught how to ride a bike when you were little, sure you might have a burning passion to learn how to on your own, or you could surround yourself with friends who know how to ride a bike and can teach you. But there is also a big possibility you would just go on your merry way never learning how to ride a bike. The same goes for living a healthy lifestyle. Unless we grew up this way, or had someone open our eyes to this way of living, we'll never know or value it.
Lastly, I realized how important the words we use with children regarding their bodies are. What we hear is what we think, and what we think we become. If you're calling a child, fat, lazy, and ugly, that can wreak havoc on their self-image and self-esteem. I'd hear stories from these kids where peers or even family members would make fun of them based on how they looked.
2. Location Matters
I was in La Jolla, California which is a DREAM. Pretty beaches, beautiful weather, and cute little towns. Going to place you'd like to spend time in is very important, but if you're thinking about using it as an excuse to travel and use it as a vacation, your summer might be exactly the opposite of that.
At Wellspring, I worked 6 days a week, and was expected to be on all day long. It was no walk in the park, but being able to take walks to La Jolla shores, hiking through Torrey Pines, and biking around in the beautiful weather really did make it that much more awesome. We definitely took advantage of our day off and packed as much into that day as we could.
3. This Isn't Your Typical Summer Counselor Job
I remember at the end of my phone interview, the women interviewing me said "This will be the hardest job of your life." I thought this was a scare tactic because come on lady! One day I'll be in a suit, working 9-5, and I won't even bat an eye at that one summer I worked at a health camp.
Nope, she was right. You're working with kids who are not only forced to be there most of the time, but they're not paying for it either, which means there isn't that value factor. You have to have them do things all day long that they won't want to do, without that temporary relief by clocking out at 5:00 pm.
I am so thankful I worked with this population before working with people who actually pay for these services themselves. When you work with people who don't value this like someone who has bought this service themselves, you have to find ways to motivate and communicate in a way that will get across to people that aren't open to it.
4. Community is Key
Dr. Hyman said, "The power of community to create health is far greater than any physician , clinic or hospital."
Seeing these kids come together in an environment where they're finally accepted for who they are was so cool to see. You could hear them talking to each other about similar things they're going through, and their confidence would continually grow throughout the summer. Having a group of people who understand your circumstances, whatever they may be, is so crucial for success.
On the flip side, I found my own community with other counselors. The people I worked with came from all over the country, but we all had the same mission. To educate others about living a healthy lifestyle in order to be their best selves. I still am in contact with most of them, and I wouldn't have had such an impactful summer without them by my side.
I hope this opened your eyes about these kinds of camps. They're definitely nothing to joke about, and if you're a nutrition, exercise science, or psychology major, they give amazing, real-life experience that's educating, but rewarding as well. I'm so thankful for the time I had in California, and would not have the same career-path I do now without it. If you ever have any questions about this reach out! I would love to tell more about my story and what to expect :)