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Rachel Bastian and her sister at Camp ENERGY's talent show

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 20 percent of school age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in this country are obese. And the majority will grow up to be obese adults. For the past 10 years, Rachel Bastian, administrative director for Education at the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, has been doing her part to change those statistics, one group of kids at a time, at Camp ENERGY.

Bastian founded ENERGY (Exercise-Nutrition-Emotions-Record-Goals-You) in 2008, basing it on a collaborative research study between CHOP and Geisinger Health System (where she was working at the time). The study showed that two models of behavior modifications for weight loss were having a big impact on kids,” she said. The camp, which runs a full week at a campsite in Millville, PA, is filled with fun activities that help kids develop healthy habits.

As the name implies, kids are exposed to a variety of approaches to help them get and stay healthy. For example, they’re encouraged to try new types of exercise, such as rock wall climbing, volleyball, Zumba, and a swim meet with fun relays. A camp dietician makes learning about healthy eating fun. For instance, to show the campers how much sugar is in the drinks they love, “we hand out empty bottles of soda and chocolate milk and have the kids measure out the number of teaspoons in each one. We teach them to read labels, to check out the level of sugar. The kids are blown away.” Then they talk about drink alternatives, such as flavored infusion waters or mixing (unsweetened) iced tea with fruits – different ideas of what they can drink instead.

In a “safe, secure environment,” a child psychologist talks with groups of campers about barriers in their lives that prevent them from making healthy choices. And both campers and counselors record what foods they eat and drink during the week, along with the exercises they participate in. “It’s not calorie counting but we want them to be mindful of what they’re doing,” she said.

Bastian knows that, for behavior modification to stick, it needs to translate home, so the camp includes “interventions” with parents or caregivers on the first and last days of camp. “It’s difficult for youth to change without family support,” Bastian said. “We talk to them about what their kids have learned and what habits should be replicated at home.”

On average, 50 campers attend each summer, but Bastian’s hoping to increase the number to 65 or even 80. For the past few years, she has been spreading the word about the camp among the local population, especially in the underserved communities. Her Penn Medicine CAREs grant will help more kids from the Philadelphia area enroll and make the necessary life changes to get and stay healthy.

While these lifestyle changes aren’t immediate – indeed, some can take years to accomplish – she is making an impact. Campers have returned saying, “I wasn’t ready to make the change when I was at camp but now I am.” One camper from 2008 returned in 2014 as a counselor. “He progressed slowly through five years of unhealthy habits but then decided to make a change,” she said. “Based on the knowledge he learned at camp, he turned his life around – losing 220 pounds and is now a role model for our young campers.

CAREs