GARDEN VALLEY, TX (KLTV) - Sleep deprivation, crawling through the mud, rolling down a hill until you vomit - all done in the name of Jesus. It happens at the Teen Mania campus in Garden valley, between Lindale and Van.
Every year, thousands of teens nationwide take part in Teen Mania conferences, while several hundred take part in a smaller program, paying for a year of Christian leadership training. Those who choose the year-long option are promised a transformation, but some who have gone through the program claim the methods bring pain, not spiritual awakening.
The retreat is pushing teens to the breaking point. It is called ESOAL and it offers the students, called interns, an Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of a Lifetime.
The retreat is held one month after students arrive on campus. ESOAL begins and ends at undisclosed times. Over the past decade it has evolved from a 2-day affair to a nearly 90-hour test of endurance both physically and emotionally.
Several hundred interns choose to participate in the program pushing them further than ever before, with participants dunking, dragging, crying and crawling their way through the rite of passage. If the mud or blood is too much, they can also choose to quit by ringing the camp bell.
Behind Teen Mania's gates more than 5,000 interns have endured ESOAL over the past 11 years, with many returning to take part again. But, a year ago a former intern gave those who would never return a chance to share their side.
"It's absolutely shocking you can brainwash a child or a young adult to roll down a hill through other people's vomit and somehow think that's a spiritual activity," said Micah Marley. "It just blows my mind."
Marley started My Teen Mania Experience blog 10 years after leaving Teen Mania behind. She did not know what ESOAL was until hearing from former interns. "People started sending me their stories and I started seeing these videos, and it was really shocking to me that this kind of abuse could be taking place in broad daylight year after year and no one is mentioning anything," she said.
The 12th ESOAL session was held last week. Director Jon Hasz, spoke on behalf of his brother, Dave, who was busy doing his first ESOAL.
"We're trying to create a retreat, an event, that would allow young people to take on emotional experiences that they're going to face down the road," explained Hasz. "...death of a child, divorce, death of a loved one and be able to deal with those not based on emotion."
"We don't think of ourselves as a boot camp," said Hasz. "It doesn't feel like that. It shouldn't feel like that." But, on Teen Mania's website, ESOAL's description is just that, being structured off of Navy Seal's 'hell week' training.
It is a claim Hasz says was truer in the program's early years when interns ate cat food before rolling down a hill until they vomited. "Eight or 10 years ago there were some things that happened that if we could take a mulligan on we would," he said. "It's changed quite a bit over the 12 years from the genesis to where it is now and we really believe it is a solid event that's accomplishing what we want it to."
Yet damage from past years may have already been done as every new blog post tells a story of an emotionally stretched teen stretched too far.
Teen Mania is adressing the growing complaints against them in a website. Click here to read their response.
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