Chapter Two

DROPPING POUNDS

Their journeys are daunting. These teens must scale mountains – perhaps move them. But as Ricci, Annya and Jahcobie immerse themselves in the physical, mental and emotional rigors of the Academy of the Sierras in their quest to conquer obesity, their efforts begin to pay off.

Annya and friends dancing under disco lights
LETTING HER HAIR down was sometimes difficult for Annya Magallanes, 14, center. But under disco lights at the academy's first dance on Oct. 22, 2005 – Annya dances the night away with new friends.

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

Annya Magallanes nervously glances down toward the faded yellow-green carpet. Her glasses keep sliding down her nose, the frames straining to reach her ears around her round face.

While Annya can't actually see her shoes because of her girth, the 14-year-old can see the words on the piece of paper she holds. They constitute a statement of personal commitment. It's a statement to herself – but one she must read out loud to her peers.

A few months earlier, Annya did her best to avoid gatherings of any kind, let alone situations where she was the center of attention, striving to isolate herself from the very events that define being a teenage girl. At 407 pounds, what she wanted most was to be invisible.

Now she is surrounded by a new set of peers, her schoolmates at the Academy of the Sierras (AOS) near the Central Valley farm town of Reedley – the kids just call it "Fat School."

Most of the students are older than Annya. Many are from other states, and even other countries. Some hail from backgrounds that include maids and mansions, a far cry from the poor and working-class student body at her old school in nearby Orosi.

But Annya draws comfort from the thing she and her new boarding school classmates have in common: They all are fat.

Slowly taking a deep breath, Annya looks out at the sea of kindred spirits gathered for the school's weekly "summit meeting" and declares: "I will push myself until I get to the top of the mountain."

* * *

Once a week, AOS students, faculty and staff gather for such summit meetings, offering students a forum for grievances, acknowledging peers or staff and even farewell speeches. Teachers and behavioral coaches hand out certificates for excellent schoolwork or community service. School directors announce news, dispel rumors and sometimes deliver serious lectures.

It's also where advances in the school's summit system are announced. All incoming students start as Gumbies, a reference to inexperienced mountain climbers.

To become a Boulderer, the next level up, students must walk an average of 10,000 steps a day for two weeks and log their intake of calories and fat grams. Additional Boulderer requirements include keeping a journal, fulfilling responsibilities, attending personal training sessions and doing well in school. Higher ranks – Ascender, Belayer and the top-rank, Yabo – carry exponentially harder qualifications.

The rewards for graduating from Gumby to Boulderer include an additional 20 minutes to call home every week, a Sunday movie off-campus with other Boulderers and free time outside the dorm.

At the summit meeting where Annya reads her personal commitment, she receives her white plastic Boulderer wristband. When she talks of scaling a mountain, those around her know she's not exaggerating.

For the past 10 mornings, Annya has pulled on her blue sweat pants, zipped up her XXL sweat shirt, covered her head – and much of her face – with the hood of her sweatshirt and headed out to morning activity.

One cool morning in mid-September, Annya walks by herself to the starting line to join other students for a timed mile run. Up front are the thinner kids who have been at the school for a while. At the whistle, about 30 of them take off running. The heavier kids follow at varying paces of speed walking.

At 100 yards, Annya has fallen well behind even the speed walkers. Molly Carmel, the school's clinical director, pulls up next to her. Annya dutifully listens to Molly, trying to ignore the sound of her own thighs chafing.

"She touches me," Carmel says later of Annya. "I used to weigh 325 pounds (and) I know what it's like to cart around that weight ... There are parts of obesity that only the underground knows about, only the tribe ... like moving your skin around in the shower; you pick it up and wash underneath.

"There is this heart-wrenching, emotionally dilapidating part of obesity that is just like so sad."

Annya finishes the mile in about 30 minutes, coming in last. But she's a mile closer to her personal summit. And as she begins to shed pounds, she also sheds some of the shell she's built to deflect rude stares and cruel comments.

Before coming to AOS, Annya opted to stay in the car rather than walk around a shopping mall with her parents. When she arrived at the school, she buried her multiple chins inside her sweat shirt – even on a searing fall day.

Now, hours before the fall dance, Annya lets her new friends take off her glasses, let down her hair and highlight her eyes with makeup. One of them lends her a pretty pair of white moccasins.

A touch of glitter makes her face sparkle under the disco lights. When the first few notes of Nelly's latest hip-hop hit blares through the speakers, Annya coos and screams along with everyone else.

She spies Jahcobie Cosum, one of only three students – all boys – who are heavier than she is, doing what she calls a "nasty dance" with several girls. Across the room Ricci Amoruso is all over his new girlfriend, whirling and twirling her around the room at a dizzying pace. Annya is having fun, dancing with other girls all night, sitting out only the slow songs.

In the months that follow, Annya becomes a staff and peer favorite and she squeezes as much out of her experience as she can, knowing that the loan her parents took out covers her time at the academy only through the end of the calendar year.

When Maria and Jose Magallanes pick up their daughter for Christmas break they are greeted by a smiling, talkative young lady – a daughter 68 pounds lighter.

* * *
Ricci rocks the guitar
STUDENTS CLEAN their own rooms and do their own laundry. A noticeably slimmer Ricci Amoruso takes a break.

While Annya's metamorphosis in the first months at the academy has been evolutionary, the transformation of Ricci Amoruso has been revolutionary – almost from the moment he arrived at the school. At home in Folsom, Ricci was frustrated and hurt by the unwelcome attention his 304-pound size drew.

But at the academy, there are lots of larger boys – and girls who don't seem to mind hanging out with fat-but-cool guys who play the guitar. Three weeks into the school year Ricci had already lost 25 pounds and was, in his own words, "rocking" his program.

He gets a girlfriend – Kasey Jabara, 18, from Kansas, three years his senior. "She brings up my spirits," he says, "and I have someone here that is more than a friend, someone I can talk to about deeper more personal stuff about what's going on in my life."

Ricci is committed to his goals to lose weight, become an athlete and reap the happiness he thinks those changes will bring. Those goals drive him to be steadfast about limiting his calorie intake and to revel in the school's physical activities.

A little more than a month into the semester, Ricci's mom picks him up at the Amtrak station in Sacramento. Though glad to have a weekend reprieve from AOS to celebrate his uncle's birthday, Ricci knows that going home will be a true test of his newfound resolve.

At a favorite restaurant the following evening, Ricci spends 40 minutes deciding what to eat, evaluating each entree's calories and fat-gram counts. Finally, he orders spaghetti with marinara sauce and salad with light Italian dressing.

As family members dig in, Ricci ignores the appetizers and eats only half his pasta. When dessert comes – a deep-dish concoction of soft, warm cookies and ice cream – he takes one bite, then excuses himself to wait in the car.

Although Ricci clearly has learned how to lose weight, school officials are increasingly frustrated by his indifference toward his studies – and irked about his relationship with Kasey. The school's handbook is explicit: "Sexual misconduct and blatant boundary violations are not allowed. This includes physical relationships."

Before the first semester is over, Ricci and Kasey hold the school record for "five-foots," meaning their conduct has prompted an order to stay at least five feet away from each other.

Just before heading home to Folsom again, for Christmas break, Ricci learns he has succeeded in losing nearly 90 pounds in his first three months at AOS – bringing him down to 215. He renews his vow to reach the 100-pounds-lost mark, and soon.

But Ricci's irritation about the school's regulations is beginning to eat away at his pride in his successful weight loss and his commitment to the program.

"It's nerve-racking," he fumes. "They got all these rules."

* * *

Even within the constraints of the weight loss academy, Boston native Jahcobie Cosum finds ways to make his own rules.

Jahcobie had started out with an open mind. He was amazed by all the trees he spotted on his drive to AOS from Fresno Yosemite International Airport. Then, the teen who arrived as the academy's largest student – at 483 pounds – amazed himself by losing 15 pounds in his first five days at the school.

Jahcobie dancing
GYRATING TO HIP-HOP at the academy's first dance on Oct. 22, 2005, Jahcobie Cosum shows he's got the moves despite his heavy frame. Brittany Goldman, center, and Loren Childress, left, share the dance floor.

Over the next few months he did his best to amaze – and amuse – everyone else by becoming the school comedian. Now, in early December he goes for broke: He walks into his U.S. history class wearing cutoff jeans that resemble a miniskirt, along with a blouse and a wig.

"I am not Jahcobie today," his teacher remembers him announcing to the class. "I am Shanequa."

The class breaks out laughing, pleasing Jahcobie. It becomes a running joke. Outside the classroom, Jahcobie playfully threatens students: "Don't make me pull out Shanequa on you."

Though he keeps acing the weight loss part of the program, losing 83 pounds in the two months since his father scraped together the money for the program, grabbing the spotlight seems to be what Jahcobie prides himself on most. In the cafeteria, he exploits the captive audience by shouting out that he wants fried chicken or by reading his own poetry aloud.

Carmel, the school's clinical director, attributes Jahcobie's behavior to a need for attention.

"I feel like all that hysterical stuff was because no one was listening to him," she said, "and he couldn't figure out how to make people (listen)."

As the months progress, Jahcobie increasingly comes to grips with his homosexuality. He is open about being gay and now his dad is trying to come to terms with it, remaining supportive but hoping it's just a phase.

"You are still a man; I still want my grandkid out of you," Larry Cosum recalls telling his son in one conversation, to which Jahcobie replies, "You are wasting your breath, Dad."

Every week for the past three months, Larry has gotten calls from the academy's behavioral coaches. The calls all seem to end the same way: Don't worry. We are still working with him.

The calls from Jahcobie are harder. Father and son will argue, Jahcobie demanding and begging to come home.

"This is no 'Let me go lose a few pounds and come back home and do the same thing,' " Larry lectures. "This is your life. This is real."

Click picture to see weight change
Annya
Ricci
Jahcobie

One morning Jahcobie wakes up angry at the world, stops by Carmel's office, telling her to leave him alone so he can just die, then storms off campus and huffs and puffs toward the nearest town, Reedley. Dan Barney, the school's program director, rushes after him.

As they walk through the nectarine groves that border County Road 48, Barney recalls asking Jahcobie a question that left the normally talkative teenager speechless: "How many good times did you have at home?"

Jahcobie remembers thinking about his life in Boston: parents with histories of substance abuse, the death of a loving aunt, thoughts of suicide – and mounds of food to try to make it all go away.

Then Barney asks: "How many good times have you had here?"

Jahcobie ponders the answer, and agrees to return to the school.

Three time zones away, Larry Cosum is maxing out his credit card to cover the tuition at AOS and the prescription medications Jahcobie takes for anxiety and depression. By Larry's accounts, it will cost him $40,000 to keep Jahcobie there eight months – a severe financial strain for the director of plant operations at a retirement home. He's been worrying about whether he can swing it, particularly now that Jahcobie is clearly so unhappy at the boarding school.

There's no money to fly Jahcobie home for Christmas. But a few days before the holiday, Jahcobie gives his father a small present in the form of a telephone conversation.

"Dad," Larry remembers Jahcobie stating in even tones, "you are right. I am going to do this for myself. It's hard, but I am not going to quit."

Those are the words Larry has been praying for.

"I said, 'All right, now you are talking, now you are talking,' " he says. Then he remembers thinking, "He's changed, he got over the hump and he's seen the light."

Before the new year arrives, Larry Cosum will qualify for a loan to keep his son at AOS until June. By then, Jahcobie, who once weighed close to 500 pounds, will be down to 389.

CONTINUED in Chapter 3: Changes, challenges


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