Chapter Four

FACING FACTS

Three teens battling obesity have reached a crossroads. They have confronted their frustration, anger and despair, and their efforts have transformed them, not just on the outside, but on the inside. The Academy of the Sierras led Ricci, Annya and Jahcobie on their journey. Now they must strive to find their own way.

Ricci and his girlfriend
ON HIS RETURN to Folsom High School, Ricci Amoruso scans for familiar faces. Ricci, who has lost 127 pounds, is anxious to reintroduce himself to schoolmates who may remember him as the 304-pound fat kid.

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

Ricci Amoruso gets up a little earlier today, stressing about what to wear.

"Something slimming and good-looking," he says.

He pulls on a new pair of sandblasted faded jeans – size 30, down from a 44 – and a T-shirt, size medium.

"Look how small I am now," he whispers to himself.

To say May 3 is a special day for the high school sophomore would be a vast understatement. He is returning to his old school in Folsom, 11 months later and 127 pounds lighter. It's a day all obese kids dream about: part revenge and part deliverance, terrifying and exhilarating.

"It's a weird vibe being back to a school where once you were made fun of by almost everybody," he had mused the night before. "You are going back a full person off your body and a lot of people now want to be your friend, where a year ago all they did was tease you for being overweight and fat."

Less than a week earlier, Ricci had walked away from the Academy of the Sierras, near Reedley in the Central Valley – a place the students call "Fat School." Over eight months at the weight loss boarding school, he had shed a vast amount of girth, gained a vast amount of self-confidence and started his first serious relationship with a girl.

But with just 34 days until the school's so-called transition ceremony, Ricci went AWOL, trudging five miles into Reedley. School officials picked him up at a Carl's Jr., celebrating his freedom with a burger and a shake.

Although he was returned to the campus, Ricci accomplished his goal of escaping AOS when his mother came to take him home. But Carol Amoruso wasn't about to let her oldest son off easy, and she quickly enrolled Ricci back at Folsom High for the remainder of the school year.

So on this Wednesday, with the warm sunlight reflecting off the wide concrete walkways, Ricci nervously walks to his first class, weaving his way through the campus populated by 2,800 students – a significant increase from the class of 72 he had become accustomed to at AOS.

During physical science class, he scans the room for a recognizable face from his days as a 304-pound freshman. He figures they don't recognize him because he has lost so much weight.

He joins a lab group working on a science problem, but the group's curiosity about the new kid trumps the schoolwork they have to complete.

"Believe it or not," Ricci says, "I used to weigh 305 pounds. I have pictures in my bag – do you want to see?"

During lunch period Ricci walks toward the outdoor amphitheater to eat the low-fat peanut butter and jelly sandwich he made himself. He scans the walkways and his past hangouts for any of his old friends.

"You look so good," one girl says to him. "Do you have a girlfriend?"

Ricci says yes, then pulls out an old picture of himself.

"See?" he says. "That's what you remember me as."

"So, what, are you still the same person?" the girl asks.

He thinks for a second, then lies to the girl – and to himself.

"Yeah, I just lost some weight."

Annya and Jahcobie
A FAREWELL EMBRACE is shared by Jahcobie and Annya Magallanes before they part ways. Annya's home is nearby; Jahcobie will head back to Boston. The pair have a common bond: Jahcobie arrived at the academy the heaviest of the boys, Annya was the heaviest of the girls. Together, they shed more than 325 pounds.
* * *

Lying to himself once was standard operating procedure for another Academy of the Sierras student, Jahcobie Cosum. But the angry and alienated kid, who hid thoughts of suicide behind the mask of class clown, has traveled far in the 237 days since he traded his home in the rough Boston neighborhood of Dorchester for a dorm room at AOS.

Though he has gained a few pounds in recent weeks, altogether he has pared off 176 pounds. After months of trying, he also has reached the top rung of the school's "summit" system, which recognizes students for personal and academic accomplishments as well as weight loss. Jahcobie has become the school's first "Yabo," named after legendary California rock climber John Yablonski.

On the day before the school year ends, Jahcobie stands before a meeting of students and staff to accept the Yabo award – he gets a certificate and is taken to a Fresno mall to pick out the silver bracelet with personalized engraving that he has coveted for so long. He tearfully thanks a list of people, but his voice truly breaks when he comes to Ryan Craig, the school's founder.

"You are the reason the school is here and without you I would be probably dead right now," he sputters.

Then he mentions another person he knows deserves credit for his transformation: "And I want to thank me, because I set the old me free and I never want to go back to the way I was."

The next day, at the school's transition ceremony, Jahcobie takes the podium again to give the address. He looks out over a small sea of parents, the group of 10 graduating seniors and the remaining underclassmen transitioning to the real world. AOS calls it a "transition" in the belief that there is no such thing as graduating for weight controllers, who will need to spend their lives revisiting lessons learned at the academy.

"For the past 16 years I have been fighting a disease – a disease that I battle every day called obesity," Jahcobie says. "Obesity began to define me and had comically swallowed me, and I was helpless."

He walks down the aisle to a standing ovation. As his stepmother, Annie Cosum, waits in the rental car, Jahcobie takes his last walk around campus to say goodbye to everybody. A long line of students, staff members and parents receive his tearful hugs. It will be an hour before Annie can get her stepson buckled in next to her.

Jahcobie and his father walking
LARRY AND JAHCOBIE Cosum walk to the movies on a June evening in Boston, after Jahcobie fixed his family a healthy dinner. The father and son have come a long way in their relationship, which had sometimes been combative.

On the ride to the airport, Jahcobie is deeply anxious about going home.

"I am going back to the place that shaped me, and it's really scary," he says. "Going back to a place where so many people don't make it out ... I'm scared that life just isn't going to be what I want it to be"

* * *

One of the recipients of Jahcobie's farewell hugs is Annya Magallanes. In a school for the oversized, the two shared a notorious distinction: She started the year as the largest girl at the academy while Jahcobie was its largest boy.

Annya is not transitioning today, however. Reluctantly, she is staying at AOS for the summer, and perhaps beyond, to try to lose more weight before her quinceañera – her traditional graduation into womanhood and the reason she enrolled at the school in the first place.

But she certainly has transitioned during the year, from a miserable 407-pound, 14-year-old girl who yearned to be invisible, to a 256-pound picture of self-confidence. She also has sloughed off the cocoon that helped protect her from the ugliness of people who focused on her bulk and not the person beneath it.

Click picture to see weight change
Annya
Ricci
Jahcobie

During the transition ceremony, Annya had done her best to remain upbeat. She watched, smiled and took pictures as friends and schoolmates headed to the podium to be recognized. Inside, she was – to use her new favorite word – annoyed. Annoyed that her parents have signed her up to stay at AOS. Annoyed that all her friends are leaving and she is not.

After the ceremony, in front of the boys' dorm she clutches a white teddy bear, a gift from one of her departing friends. That's where Jahcobie catches up with her, wraps his arms around her and plants a big kiss on her forehead.

"Good luck," Annya says, smiling. As she watches the parade of rental cars stuffed with suitcases and packing boxes pull away from the campus, she tries to focus on two bright spots in her gloomy future: the celebration of her quinceañera in September and, more immediately, the family's annual vacation to Mexico, just a couple of weeks away.

On the 32-hour drive to the Mexican state of Zacatecas, Annya racks her brain for a way to persuade her parents not to send her back to AOS. She settles on a plan, promising her dad she'll lose 2 pounds a week if he lets her stay home. She loses 7 pounds in Mexico to make sure he knows she means it.

Her parents agree. But AOS officials, already miffed that Annya missed school for the trip to Mexico, strenuously object to the do-it-herself plan.

"I was really surprised and mad that they attacked me," Annya's mother, Maria, says after meeting with school officials. "I didn't like that they said I wasn't a good parent."

AOS Executive Director Phil Obbard tries to put into perspective what school officials think is at stake.

"This is a child that was 400 pounds a year ago," he says, "and we don't have confidence for her long-term weight control ... She'll gain weight again. I hope I am wrong, but the odds are against her."

* * *

EPILOGUE

Ricci wanted desperately to go to Reedley and watch his girlfriend, Kasey Jabara, a high school senior at AOS, graduate, but felt he would not be welcomed back at the school. Instead, he persuaded his grandmother, Jennifer Amoruso, to buy him a plane ticket to visit Kasey at her father's home in Wichita, Kan. Then, in July, Kasey flew to Sacramento to check out junior colleges in the area.

After a fight with his mom, Ricci went to live with his grandmother on her 650-acre cattle ranch outside of Roseville and transferred to Lincoln High School.

Kasey enrolled at Sierra College in Rocklin and moved in with Ricci and his grandma while looking for an apartment. On Sept. 8, Ricci and Kasey celebrated their one-year anniversary with dinner at a French restaurant.

Five months after leaving the academy, Ricci says he weighs about 190 pounds – nearly 10 more than when he quit AOS. He is the only one of the three followed by The Bee who has gained weight since leaving the program. "They kept theirs off?" he asked. "I feel horrible."

* * *

Jahcobie arrived back in Dorchester on June 3 and visited his regular school, the Boston Arts Academy, where his dramatic personality had led him to pursue theater.

"Oh, my God, it was crazy," he says of the visit. "People were running out of the classrooms and giving me hugs. The reaction I got was just amazing."

After a year of ups and downs, of calls from Jahcobie begging to leave AOS just as his father, Larry Cosum, was trying to pull together enough money to keep him there, Larry recently invited Jahcobie to visit him at work. "I want people to see what I have been crying about."

Larry Cosum says he has accepted his son's homosexuality, although he still holds out hope Jahcobie will grow out of it. "If you want to be gay that's your choice in life, but you are only young right now," he tells him.

One night, over a dinner of salad, whole wheat pasta and chicken prepared by Jahcobie, the conversation turned to recent killings in the neighborhood. Jahcobie had stopped wearing his silver Yabo bracelet outside, for fear it would be stolen.

A few days later, Jahcobie flew to upstate New York, where he spent the summer as an administrative assistant at Wellspring New York, a weight loss camp for girls owned by the academy's parent company. The camp is run by Molly Carmel, his former behavioral coach at AOS.

In September, Jahcobie returned to the Boston Arts Academy as a junior. He has lost 14 pounds since leaving AOS and is trying to raise money for surgery to remove the excess skin his 190-pound weight loss has left behind.

* * *

Annya spent the rest of the summer planning for her quinceañera. She took dance lessons, delivered invitations, ordered party favors and a cake and was fitted for a gown.

All her life, clothes didn't fit because she'd outgrown them. But the most important dress in her young life turned out to be bigger than she – "super big," she said.

Back to the seamstress went the dress to be scaled down to a size 20 – a size available off the rack at the mall where all her classmates at Orosi High School like to shop.

On the big day, Sept. 2, about 400 friends and family members showed up for a fiesta in a private park on the banks of the Kings River.

In the old days, Annya would have dodged the stares of other people. Instead, at one point during the party, she and her court headed for an inflated bounce house, where Annya slid through an opening that would never have accommodated her former self.

As the quinceañera ceremony unfolded, Annya's parents perched a crown on her head and removed her flat shoes to replace them with high heels – symbols of her transformation from girl to young woman.

Watching the symbolic change were several of Annya's friends and teachers from the academy who had witnessed her real quinceañera – a year when she grew from an introverted child into a confident young woman, 158 pounds lighter.

Annya at her quinceañera
CONFIDENT AND BEAMING, Annya Magallanes walks past the male contingent of her quinceañera court. The traditional Latino celebration — which marks a girl's transition into womanhood — helps her pay tuition for the Academy of the Sierras.

The following day, Annya couldn't wait to see how much money she had gotten for her quinceañera – but for a reason no one, least of all Annya, had expected. Despite losing 8 pounds on her own over the summer, Annya had changed her mind about the boarding school. Her mom agreed she could go back if her quinceañera cash covered a month at the school – the cost of which increased in January to $5,800.

Even though Annya's party money fell far short – just $900 in all – that didn't stop her from pressing her parents to find a way. She longed for the staff and friends who boosted her self-confidence and the regimen that helped her lose weight. She yearned to lose another 70 pounds – or more.

"I want to go back for as much and as long as we can afford," she said. "What I learned there is I can eat better and do better things, like exercising and not putting myself down. I feel better about myself."

On Monday, Oct. 2, Annya's determination paid off. After a meeting with school administrators where financial assistance was discussed but never finalized, Annya headed to the girls' dorms – the very place where 13 months earlier she had screamed and yelled "don't leave me here, I don't want to stay here."

"We are very happy that Annya is back," said school Executive Director Phil Obbard. "We have the room for a handful of students where we offer a partial scholarship based on the financial need of the family and Annya's family certainly qualifies. ... I have a lot of confidence that we will come up with something to make it possible for Annya to stay for hopefully as long as she needs to be here."

Though still worried about how she will afford it, Maria can't envision letting finances get in the way of Annya's happiness.

She knew she'd made the right decision, Maria said, when she left Annya at the girls' dorm with one question: Are you going to scream and yell this time? Annya, she recalls, looked at her and said confidently, "No, I am OK."

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