Chapter Three

CHANGES, CHALLENGES

For three teenagers battling obesity at the Academy of the Sierras, the progress is undeniable: They're losing hundreds of pounds and gaining immeasurable self-confidence. But the success so clearly marked by the scales brings new challenges for Ricci, Annya and Jahcobie.

Ricci and his girlfriend
THE RELATIONSHIP BUILDS between Ricci Amoruso and his girlfriend Kasey, who share a playful moment, as schoolmate Sam Metzel watches, during free time on March 2. The two admit to sneaking in a kiss or a hug when staff members aren't looking.

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.

STORIES AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY CRISOSTOMO SACRAMENTO BEE STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Room 44 is the weigh-in room at the Academy of the Sierras, a small, sparsely furnished space with harsh fluorescent lights that threaten to overpower entrants from the dark hall. Ten days into 2006, a haphazard line of scantily dressed, bleary-eyed teens wait outside the room, until propelled in, one at a time, by a shrill command of "next."

They enter full of anxiety and dread. Seconds later they leave, teary-eyed, listless – or in high spirits.

Ricci Amoruso, sporting a new haircut with blond highlights, comes out of Room 44 bouncing off the walls. The digital scale reads 199.4 pounds. "Big Rick" has vanquished 106 pounds in less than five months at his new boarding school outside the Central Valley town of Reedley – known to the students as "Fat School."

Ricci is becoming what the school calls a "weight controller."

On his way to class he stops at a bulletin board down the hall and snickers at "a fat picture of me."

Ricci's girlfriend, Kasey Jabara, is happy for her boyfriend. From Kansas and a few years older, Kasey seems to have done as much for his self-confidence as the weight loss. While most students participate in team sports during afternoon activity, Ricci and Kasey prefer to log steps on their pedometers in a two-mile walk around the orchards and vineyards that border the campus.

Privately, they confess that the walk is a way to be together and a chance to steal a hug or kiss - prohibited by school rules – when staff members aren't looking.

By the start of spring, Ricci is down to 177 pounds, not bad for his 5-foot-10-inch frame. He has done what he said he would do eight months earlier – lose a lot of weight, then go home. He thinks he is ready.

But school officials disagree, telling Ricci's mom that her son still has issues to deal with.

"They told me he needs to get to some of his core issues, like women authority issues," says his mom, Carol Amoruso.

Toward the end of March, Ricci's problems multiply when another student sees inappropriate videos he and Kasey have taken of themselves and stored on their laptop computers, and snitches on Ricci. He also is caught with a forbidden cell phone.

Ricci is given three days in the academy's equivalent of solitary. Then he's sent to the school's new Sierra Adventure Program (SAP). The wilderness program is on an island in the Kings River, where students live in tents, cook their own food and refocus. There, Ricci joins incoming students who now are sent to the program for at least four weeks before shifting to the main campus.

April rains force the academy to relocate SAP to a site behind an unused building on the northeast corner of the 68-acre campus, and Ricci is as miserable as the weather.

"I was taken out of the community so fast I didn't even get the chance to say goodbye," he says, as tears tumble down his cheeks. Nervously twisting a silver promise ring, he adds, "Me, with Kasey, I don't even know how long it's going to last after this."

Ricci exiled
HE HASN'T SHOWERED in days and Ricci Amoruso is miserable after being exiled to the academy's wilderness camp, away from his girlfriend.

With a week left in his monthlong exile, Ricci lashes out and tells the staff that he doesn't like the way he's being treated. The school responds to his grievance by adding two more weeks to his SAP time.

Late one night in April, while his tentmates sleep and the staff member on duty is distracted by an episode of "American Idol," Ricci quietly slips on his sneakers and walks away from the Academy of the Sierras.

* * *

Annya Magallanes returns to AOS after the Christmas break to the chatter of students bummed out about – and being lectured for – gaining weight over the holidays. For her part, Annya lost nearly four pounds. It wasn't easy.

On Christmas Day, the Magallanes' kitchen had overflowed with traditional Mexican sweets: churros, deep-fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar – Annya could vividly remember eating a whole strip of it in years past – and flan, a rich custard dessert topped with soft caramel. It evoked memories, too - of Mexico and Grandma patiently teaching Annya how to make it just so.

When it came time to eat, Annya hung tough and stuck with a couple of special tamales her mom had made with no oils or fat. She turned her back on the churros and flan.

Annya's favorite Christmas gift was a purse, but the most significant gift came on Jan. 6, or El Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day). After persistent doubts about whether Annya would be able to stay at the academy much longer, her parents - who already had mortgaged their house to send her to the special school – managed to pull off another loan to keep her there until June.

Annya and her father
ANNYA MAGALLENES ADJUSTS a new pair of glasses her father, Jose, brought to her during a January visit. It was difficult for Jose to part with her on her first day of school, but his sadness subsided as "daddy's girl" blossomed.

Annya knows she still has a lot of work to do. But as she loses pounds, she gains confidence.

"She has blossomed here, like totally blossomed," says clinical director Molly Carmel.

She feels healthier, and happier, too. One day, she thinks it would be fun to make a human pyramid, so she posts signs pointing to the location, gathers her schoolmates and orchestrates them into position.

Once too self-conscious to even eat lunch at her old school, Annya starts speaking out. She complains when she thinks a friend at the academy doesn't receive adequate medical care, and balks at being the center of attention when the news media show up at the school.

"They don't care for me," she says of academy staff, "they just get a lot of promotion from me, because I was the heaviest girl."

On March 14, Annya weighs in at 297 pounds, almost 110 pounds off the 407 she carried at the beginning of the school year. The school community has started giving out a student-of-the-month award and Annya receives the first one.

"Her personality, it has changed," her mother, Maria, notes when Annya comes home for a brief visit. "She is more outspoken. And more outgoing. Like right now she wanted to go to the mall, and that was one of the things she never wanted to do."

* * *

While the new year has brought a new voice for quiet Annya, it has brought introspection for Jahcobie Cosum.

Two weeks into January, the Boston teen weighs in at 375 pounds. He has lost 108 pounds, and is shedding his self-loathing and extravagant shtick for a more humble persona.

Jahcobie styling hair
GIRLS PRIMP FOR a Valentine's dance with the help of Jahcobie Cosum, who uses a curling iron to style the hair of Lauren Coates.

"October 2005 Jahcobie, which I like to call old Jahcobie, is depressed, angry, hating life, wanting to die, wanting to kill everybody and just needing to release his pain," the teen says, assessing himself. "Now the 2006 Jahcobie is totally different, he is sweet, loving, caring, courageous, determined and just has a greater outlook on life."

As the year unfolds, Jahcobie is dropping weight at a record pace for the school and acing the rest of the program. He is elected to student council, makes the school's elite physical activity team and is rapidly climbing the school's summit system, which rewards students for their progress by moving them up the various levels named after mountaineering terms.

His right wrist holds the multicolored plastic bracelets of a Boulderer, Ascender and Belayer, and he has his eye on becoming the school's first Yabo, which comes with a personalized silver bracelet.

School officials are duly impressed.

"He knew what he had to lose," says the academy's program director, Dan Barney, who had once talked Jahcobie out of running away. "He is dealing with his demons and is trying to change his whole lifestyle. But there is always a glimpse of what he calls the old Jahcobie, when (bad) things happen – and he is learning to deal with it ... he is one in a million."

For weeks Jahcobie will knock on Barney's office and hand over his Yabo application. For weeks Barney will hand it back and say, "This is too superficial; you've got to get deeper."

Jahcobie will walk out of Barney's office flustered and frustrated. But he always comes back. "The old Jahcobie would have thrown in the towel," says Barney. "He is in the process now, he is learning coping skills to make the new Jahcobie stronger than the old Jahcobie."

But even as Jahcobie becomes more responsible and gains more jobs and privileges, his successes grate on some of his fellow students.

"We were like peanut butter and jelly when I first got here," says student Kai Peralta. "He thinks he is the bomb at this program, and he has got it down pat. He's better than other people, and he thinks that a lot, and I think he could just realize that other people go through different things and everyone can't be like him. He needs to help more than criticize and judge."

* * *

Lauren Childress decorates her door
LAUREN CHILDRESS, 14, of Houston, plasters her dorm room with magazine clippings. Her self-image has grown as much as her dress size has shrunk. During spring break, she ran into acquaintances and an ex-boyfriend. "Back then they didn't want me," she says. "Now that I'm hot, they all want me."

The final days of spring send rising Valley temperatures radiating through the AOS campus. Couples fret about saying goodbye. Some students aren't ready to go home; others wish they could. It seems like everyone is losing weight.

The conversations shift from a wistful "I'd like to lose weight" to an ambitious "I want to get a six-pack" look to their abdomens. In the weight room, the boys are trying to one-up each other in lifting. In the girls' dorms, fashion magazines litter the rooms and teenage girls feeling better about themselves start wearing skimpy outfits and "nice tops."

Staff members have started a clothing exchange, where one person's too-big castoffs can become a larger student's new wardrobe. Now, they quietly suggest to some of the girls that they're moving a little prematurely into form-fitting clothing.

At the outdoor pool, both boys and girls talk about getting surgery to reduce the excess skin left behind by their drastic weight loss.

And at a summit meeting of the students and faculty, clinical director Molly Carmel – a "weight controller" herself who once dropped from a high of 325 pounds to 175 – has two words for everyone:

"Finish strong!"

CONTINUED in Chapter 4: Facing facts


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