Chapter One

HEAVY BEGINNINGS

The burdens they carry are enormous – not just on their oversized frames, but in so many other facets of their lives. Meet Ricci, Annya and Jahcobie, three teens struggling with obesity and all its complications. They arrive at the Academy of the Sierras not only to shed pounds, but to forever transform themselves.

Ricci, Annya, and Jahcobie, from left to right

About this story

In the fall of 2005, 72 teenagers enrolled at the nation's first weight loss boarding school, the Academy of the Sierras, in Reedley, where the curriculum includes not just history and English, but calorie counting, exercise, group therapy, and regular weigh-ins.

Among the new students were Ricci Amoruso, who had tired of being teased about his size at Folsom High; Annya Magallanes, from the nearby farm town of Orosi and whose parents had spent thousands of dollars on alternative medical treatments that did not work; and Jahcobie Cosum, a self-described "ghetto kid" with a death wish from Boston.

All three were morbidly obese, literally at risk of dying from their weight. All three came to AOS hoping to escape their prisons of fat. This week, The Bee follows their progress over the course of a year.

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STORIES AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY CRISOSTOMO SACRAMENTO BEE STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Lunchtime at El Monte Junior High School means 13-year-old Annya Magallanes is hiding. She skips eating, her hunger pain outweighed by the humiliation of kids staring at the nearly 400 pounds she carries on her 5-foot-2-inch frame.

After school, in the safe haven of her home in Orosi, about 30 miles southeast of Fresno, Annya is tired. All she wants to do is sleep. On her family's oversized couch, she dozes sitting up; if she lies down, the fat tissue around her neck could suffocate her.

Annya was a chubby 6-year-old when her parents, Maria and Jose, became concerned about her size. Her three brothers were big, too, but nothing like Annya. Several doctors and a battery of tests found nothing out of the ordinary, yet she kept packing on the weight.

By her 12th birthday, Annya tipped the scales at 360 pounds. Frustrated but diligent, the family looked to Mexico for an alternative medical solution. Four trips to Guadalajara were costly, the prescriptions expensive and the results negligible.

In August 2004, one of Jose's co-workers at Peña's Disposal Inc. hands Maria a newspaper clipping about a weight loss boarding school opening in Reedley, less than 13 miles from the Magallanes' front door – so close, it is on Jose's trash pickup route.

* * *

While the Magallanes family is mulling over whether the new school might be the answer for Annya, Ricci Amoruso is keeping his fingers crossed. He is about to start his freshman year at Folsom High School, and he is hoping against hope that whatever attention he draws will be for some reason other than the fact that, at 5 feet 9 inches, he weighs 290 pounds.

As the new kid at Folsom Middle School, he remembers, the sight of several other big-for-their-age boys had temporarily comforted him. But his sense of security was short-lived: The kids soon singled him out from the other big boys for barbs like "lard ass" and "tons of fun."

Once the school year and its torture ends, Carol Amoruso gathers Ricci and her other son, and her parents, in front of the television after dinner one night. Ricci finds himself riveted by a "Dateline NBC" story about the Academy of the Sierras (AOS) – a newly opened residential high school for overweight teenagers. On the spot, Ricci's grandparents agree to put up the money – $5,500 a month – to enroll him for an entire school year.

* * *

Nearly 3,000 miles away in Boston, 15-year-old Jahcobie Cosum is walking with friends when pain shoots through his chest. His head spins; he can't breathe. He stops, sits down and lights up a cigarette. His friends have to take him to the hospital on a city bus.

Gasping for air, Jahcobie remembers thinking, "This is the end of my life. I am going to die.

Jahcobie struggles to stand
GETTING UP IS still a struggle for Jahcobie Cosum, who is about to leave a meeting on Oct. 12, 2005, with John Wright, the school's academic director.

"Finally, what I have been waiting for."

At the hospital he is treated for an asthma attack. His dad picks him up and takes him and his friends to McDonald's, where Jahcobie orders two Big Macs, three large fries and some chicken with sweet-and-sour sauce.

Jahcobie weighs 468 pounds.

A Boston Children's Hospital psychiatrist, who is trying to help Jahcobie get a handle on his anger and thoughts of suicide, hears about a new therapeutic weight loss boarding school in California and persuades Jahcobie to give it a try – if he can find a way to pay for it.

* * *

There are an estimated 9 million Annyas, Jahcobies and Riccis in the United States, children and young adults ages 6 to 19 who are fat. A growing number of them are morbidly obese – at risk of dying from their weight. Annya, Jahcobie and Ricci all reach that danger zone.

Genetics, diet and lifestyle conspire against them, and from there the situation only gets bleaker. The simple weight loss mantra – eat less, exercise more – is tough enough for adults to live by, let alone children. Fat camps, behavior modification programs, drugs and fad diets have not been able to stem rising youth obesity rates. Gastric bypass surgery is not generally considered a medically sound option for teens.

Opened in September 2004 on the site of a former psychiatric hospital with just seven teens, the Academy of the Sierras is an effort to cull the best of other approaches – to change lifestyles and mindsets, not just the numbers on the scale. The students call it simply "Fat School."

AOS teams high school classes with rigorous exercise and enforced dieting, therapy and a community offering equal doses of peer pressure and moral support in a setting sheltered from the taunts and loneliness of regular schools.

In his corner office on the San Joaquin Valley campus, sandwiched between acres of fruit groves and grapevines, the academy's executive director, Phil Obbard, slips into a pitch for his school. It is a pretty easy sell for desperate parents of a child struggling with obesity.

Molly Carmel leading class
HUNGER'S THE TOPIC of discussion during a Sept. 15, 2005, nutrition class being led by Molly Carmel, the academy's clinical director and a former drug counselor.

"I had not seen this before," he says. "Here was a combination of approaches – diet, activity and behavioral – that actually seem to have a lasting effect."

The rail-thin Obbard had seen just about every kind of diet in six years working at Slim-Fast Foods Co. when academy founder Ryan Craig, his friend of 15 years, called to ask for help. In October 2005, Obbard took over as director and Craig became president of the school's owner, Healthy Living Academies, which also runs weight loss camps.

The academy's cost is nosebleed steep: $5,500 per month for tuition and room and board works out to nearly $50,000 for an academic year – the price of a top private college.

Scholarships are limited, and most insurance companies remain wary of the program, wanting more scientific evidence of its effectiveness.

Even so, by September 2005 AOS had a waiting list and plans had begun to open a second school in the spring of 2007, in North Carolina.

The academy operates year round with a rolling admissions policy, accepting students – subject to the academic approval of their regular school – almost any time. Some stay only three months; a couple have lingered for a year and a half. The average is eight to nine months.

To be accepted, students must be at least 30 pounds overweight, but most are at least 50 pounds overweight – and some as much as 300 pounds.

The academy's daily routine is carefully mapped out, from the 7 a.m. wake-up to the 10:45 p.m. lights out. It always begins with a physical activity. After showering and dressing, students eat breakfast and then head to academic classes, which end at 3 p.m. Clubs, group therapy and free time precede dinner. Later comes another hour-long activity, followed by study hall before the students retire to their dorms.

It's all part of becoming what the school calls a "weight controller."

Game Boys, televisions and cell phones are barred from dorm rooms, and Internet use is limited to academic research in a computer lab under adult supervision. Several plasma televisions do reside in the workout room – in front of shiny new exercise machines.

Students line up in the cafeteria three times a day for the "controlled food" menu, scrawled on a white board complete with calorie and fat counts. A typical meal consists of two cheese enchiladas, 4 ounces of Spanish rice, 8 ounces of soup and Jell-O – a total of 404 calories.

Students are allowed 1,200 calories a day and may add several "uncontrolled" foods – fat-free cottage cheese, vegetables or fruit. The drink machine offers only diet soda and water.

That was the rigid regimen that greeted Annya, Jahcobie and Ricci, along with 69 other teenagers, who came together at the year-old Central Valley school in the fall of 2005, betting on its promise to help them escape their prisons of fat.

* * *

The first steps in Annya's trek to the Academy of the Sierras were taken during a trip to Guadalajara, where her parents paid $3,000 for another round of shots and medication. During that visit, in December 2004, Annya attended her cousin's quinceañera – a lavish and religious celebration thrown by Latinos to honor a girl's passage from childhood into womanhood at age 15, or quince.

Annya on the scale
ANNYA MAGALLANES learns she's down to 384 pounds – losing nearly 23 pounds by Oct. 12, 2005, six weeks after enrolling at the Academy of the Sierras. Annya has quickly become a favorite of Molly Carmel, the academy's clinical director. "She just treks on, it is so inspiring," Carmel says of Annya.

Annya was enthralled at the thought of having her own quinceañera – and her mother, Maria, says she saw an opportunity: "If you really want it, you need to lose some weight," she recalls telling her daughter. "I told her, 'Maybe you could go in the school, into the Academy of the Sierras. Maybe they could help you lose the weight.' "

After eight more months of doctors' visits, nasty-tasting medicine, talk of gastric bypass surgery – and more pounds gained – Maria describes her relief when Annya finally came to her, asking, "Mom, do you think you can put me in there?" By then, she weighed more than 400 pounds.

Maria, who owns an accounting practice in Dinuba, got her child the last spot on AOS' fall roster, then quickly secured an equity loan on their home to cover a $28,000 check to the school, literally betting the house on Annya's future.

On the short drive to the school, Annya is fine. But as her father lugs her suitcases into the room she will share with two strangers, reality sets in and turns to fear, panic and tears.

Annya seizes her dad's arm, says she is scared and wants to go home. Jose succumbs and, Maria recalls, tells her, "Well she doesn't want to stay here, let's take her back home."

But Maria stands firm. Resigned to her mother's wishes, Annya starts unpacking her clothes into the top two drawers of a dresser she shares with her new roommates. She is fuming, feeling unloved and abandoned.

The 20-minute drive back to Orosi is agonizing for Maria and Jose.

"You know I love her very much," Maria says she told her husband, who will cry every time "daddy's girl" calls home in the next month. "Maybe you don't love her as much as I do, because if we take her home something is going to happen to her because she is so heavy."

* * *

Two hundred miles north, on a cool crisp morning the last Sunday in August, Carol Amoruso wakes up her sons at their modest three-bedroom ranch house in Folsom. The night before, Ricci used a Sharpie to mark his initials on the labels of his XXL shirts and size 44-waist pants and shorts. During the three-and-a-half-hour drive to his new school, Ricci remembers looking at all his stuff and thinking happily, "Like heck yeah, I am going to school, I am going to lose weight and come back skinny."

Ricci swimming in a pool
RICCI AMORUSO spends time with his new girlfriend, Kasey Jabara, an 18-year-old from Wichita, Kan. The academy frowns on physical relationships, but Ricci and Kasey grow close.

Ricci makes sure there will be no family drama at the boys' dorm. While a resident assistant inventories his items, Ricci sees out of the corner of his eye that his mom is starting to tear up. Undaunted, the 304-pound high school sophomore recalls boldly ushering her out of the room, saying, "See you. I got weight to lose, Mom." Carol found herself dumbfounded, replying, "Well, give me a hug or something."

* * *

While Annya and Ricci are beginning their experience at AOS with dramatically different outlooks, Jahcobie is still waiting for his chance. For the ghetto-born son of a drug-addicted mother and alcoholic father, the program's price tag keeps its promise far out of reach.

But the program looks like a second chance at a decent life for Jahcobie, and his father, Larry Cosum, knows something about second chances. When Jahcobie was 15 months old, social workers took the baby from his parents, telling them whoever cleaned up first would get the child.

Larry checked himself into a halfway house, tamed his alcoholism, got an apartment and a job, and reclaimed his son.

Larry's sister Melinda helped raise Jahcobie, and the boy developed a special bond with his "Aunt Lin." When she died in 1997, Jahcobie recalls being angry with his aunt for abandoning him. At her funeral, the 6-year-old stuffed his face with bags of snack chips.

Jahcobie in repose
BETWEEN HIS CLASSES on Oct. 12, 2005, Jahcobie Cosum leans back on a couch and discusses modifying his class schedule with John Wright, the school's academic director.

Trouble attached itself to Jahcobie as quickly as the pounds. As an eighth-grader, he says he would come home high or drunk. He cut himself and once tried to burn his bedroom. In addition to dealing with his weight, he was trying to come to terms with his sexuality.

"Jahcobie thinks he is gay, and he doesn't want you to know," Larry remembers one Boston-area counselor telling him. "He knows it is going to break your heart."

Despite the astronomical cost, Larry decides, the place he called "the fat school" in California might be the boy's best hope. So the desperate dad raises $7,000 by selling household items and Jahcobie's therapist helps him get a partial scholarship through a nonprofit called Louie's Kids, founded by the son of a man who died from complications of obesity.

In October 2005 with enough funds to cover just a couple of months at AOS, Jahcobie finds himself in the heart of the Central Valley. At 483 pounds, he checks into the academy as its heaviest resident.

He is still angry, and once again thinks of suicide.

CONTINUED in Chapter 2: Dropping pounds


How this story was reported

In the spring of 2005, Sacramento Bee photographer Manny Crisostomo approached the Academy of the Sierras' founder Ryan Craig about the possibility of documenting a school year.

At Craig's suggestion, Crisostomo did a trial run to determine how the students would interact with him, attending the academy's first transition ceremony on June 5, 2005. Craig subsequently agreed and on Sept. 5, 2005, Crisostomo started the first of more than 70 trips to the school in Reedley and to the students' homes in Orosi, Folsom and Boston.

He was given access to all the school's events, classrooms, lunchrooms and dormitories. The only places off limits were group and individual therapy sessions.

With the school and students on board, Manny obtained written permission from parents to document the experiences of a group of teens, including Annya, Ricci and Jahcobie. During the year, he took photos and video, recorded audio and conducted interviews.

Crisostomo witnessed most of the events in the stories. When he was not present, scenes were pieced together from interviews with all of those present, including Ricci, Annya and Jahcobie and their parents, their teachers and schoolmates and academy administrators and staff.

Manny's mugshot

Crisostomo joined the Sacramento Bee photo department in August 2002 as a senior photographer. His last photo project, on the final wave of Hmong refugees, won the 2005 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for International Photography.

Previously, Crisostomo taught photojournalism and design at San Francisco State University for a year. He began his career at the Pacific Daily News, then majored in photojournalism at the University of Missouri.

At the Detroit Free Press, Crisostomo won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in feature photography for his yearlong documentary of an inner-city high school.

In 1991, he took a sabbatical and returned to his native Guam to document the island and the Chamoru people in a coffee-table book, "Legacy of Guam: I Kustumbren Chamoru."


Manny Crisostomo can be reached at mcrisostomo@sacbee.com or 916-321-5242.