Feeding body and soul Adventists' camp joins weight loss, spirituality

Posted: July 29, 2006

Brenda Hunt knew she had gained weight, but she never considered stomach-bypass surgery. When her doctor told her she was a candidate, Hunt didn't believe it and told him so.

"I said, 'Are you nuts? I'm fat, but not that fat.' "

Seventy pounds packed on a result of steroid medication meant Hunt was indeed a candidate for the weight-loss shortcut of the stars. But Hunt, of Wynnefield Heights, decided to lose weight the old-fashioned way - and with what she describes as a little heavenly help.

The associate professor at Community College of Philadelphia is one of 64 campers at Fit 4 You, a health and wellness camp with programming that incorporates Christian principles in Pine Forge, Berks County.

Fit 4 You is a 28-year-old program held for two weeks each year on the campus of the Allegheny East Conference of Seventh-Day Adventist. The program combines a four-pronged approach to wellness that includes the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual components of fitness.

"It is so important for people to take care of their health," Leah Scott, the camp's executive director, said. "If you don't make a plan for you, somebody else will, and that somebody could be McDonald's."

Campers at Fit 4 You participate in a program that includes physical exercise, lectures on health and nutrition and spirituality, a strict vegetarian diet, and field trips to places like the supermarket, where campers learn about the good, the bad and the ugly of food.

Interwoven throughout the program is a spiritual message that has its roots in Seventh-Day Adventist doctrine on the importance of health and wellness. Adventists advocate a vegetarian diet, regular exercise, sufficient time for rest, and abstinence from drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

"God gave our first parents the food He designed that the race should eat," wrote Ellen G. White, cofounder of the movement that led to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. "It was contrary to His plan to have the life of any creature taken. There was to be no death in Eden. The fruit of the trees in the garden was the food man's wants required."

Adventists are most known for their belief that Saturday is the biblical Sabbath. They emphasize the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ and a holistic view of the spiritual and physical, believing that the care of a person's body is a reflection of their commitment to God, said Edwin I. Hernandez, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame. Hernandez has written extensively on the Seventh-Day Adventists.

Studies conducted by researchers at the denomination's Loma Linda University in California have shown that Seventh-Day Adventists in the state live four to eight years longer than other Californians and have lower risks of developing certain cancers. A new study comparing the relationship between diet and cancer is currently under way at the school and is being funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Fit 4 You was founded in 1978 by Gwen Foster, Philadelphia's health and fitness czar. Foster, who earned a master's degree in public health from Loma Linda, was serving as health ministries director for the Allegheny East Conference's 30,000 Adventists when Mayor Street plucked her from the post to be health czar.

"I was concerned that there were no programs for people who were minority or who didn't have the money for the kinds of places wealthy people could afford," Foster said. When health guru Nathan Pritikin challenged Foster to start a program, she did.

The camp is located on the conference's 575-acre campus, which includes pavilions, cabins, a church, offices, cafeteria and an historic boarding school - all on a site that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The day begins with a 6 a.m. fitness walk with the group's campers divided by fitness levels. This year the 64 range in age from 20 to 85. The more fit among them walk 2 1/2 miles, while the less-so may walk the length of a parking lot.

Campers, who come from various religious backgrounds, must get a doctor's OK before they can apply. Tuition is an all-inclusive $749 for the two weeks. There is usually a waiting list, so spaces are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. All staff is volunteer and includes nutritionists, dietitians, psychologists, counselors, nurses, clergy and fitness instructors. Camp fees do not cover the cost, so the conference kicks in the balance, Scott said.

Once they get to camp, campers are given fitness screenings and blood work, the results of which are compared at the camp graduation.

For Hunt, the camp has been a godsend.

Hunt, 56, had a brain tumor removed four years ago. She then developed an auto-immune deficiency that was treated with steroids. She gained the weight, which put pressure on her knees and her back. When she heard about the camp from a coworker, she decided to try it and her doctor encouraged her to go.

"My father and I used to walk around the St. Joseph's track three miles a day," Hunt said. "Now, he comes over to help take care of me - and he's 83."

The camp has offered Hunt the quiet time to hear what she calls "the spiritual voice."

"That's the voice inside that doesn't lie and you must tell it the truth," Hunt said.

Still, not everything about the camp has been a picnic, she said.

"I can't lie; it's hard and it hurts," Hunt said, especially after she was passed on the morning walk by an 80-year-old woman. "But there's nothing like having a bunch of people cheering for you after you've walked 2 1/2 miles."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 215-854-2791 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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