GARDEN VALLEY, TX (KLTV) - It is advertised as a life transforming event, promising to push teenagers to the breaking point. The goal: to make them stronger and closer to God. But, do the activities in Teen Mania's ESOAL program go too far?
The program's creators says no. As do past students, but not everyone agrees with the methods.
It is nearly five days of mud and exercise. It is a program Jonathan Hasz, Creative Director of Global Expedition says was created to stretch several hundred teens emotionally each September.
"What we're trying to do is really empower and educate and build up and provide support for the whole person," said Hasz.
Some who have endured ESOAL say the event does just that. Many past and present Teen Mania students are now coming forward to share ESOAL's impact.
"I participated in ESOAL this year and can attest to its biblical soundness as well as the successfulness of the event," wrote Jeremy Wahlie.
"We're not nearly as physically demanding as what a boot camp or a Navy Seal training or a Marine boot camp or something like that would be," said Hasz.
"Eight or 10 years ago there were some things that happened that if we could take a mulligan on we would," said Hasz.
The 'mulligan worthy' events include students rolling down a hill through other's vomit after becoming sick eating a variety of unappetizing food.
In an email Wednesday from Teen Mania to KLTV, ESOAL creator Dave Hasz says corrections have been made saying "most never throw up on the hill." For the first time, restrictions are in place for interns participating in the "hill roll." Starting this year, they are only allowed three rolls. Hasz's email also stated "cat food has never been served at ESOAL." Two incidents were cited in the early 2000's, claiming the cat food tin seen in some video of the event was filled with refried beans.
To see if the changes were enough, we met a former student we will call "Jane" who planned to finish the ESOAL held last week.
"You knew it was going to be tough," she said. "They call it a 'life transformation.' I didn't know it was going to be like that though...I think it's just degrading."
Jane's experience lasted only just six hours.
"They told us that we had to go get in our ESOAL uniform which meant we all had to go jump in the pool and get soaking wet. Once soaked, Jane says that students are made to roll in sand and follow exercise orders.
"If we weren't doing it correctly, besides being punished, they would say, 'It pays to be a winner. You're a loser.' How did that make you feel? Really bad."
Near where last week's students drilled came their first night's sleep.
"The basketball courts were soaked with water and they all had us lay down to take a nap," said Jane.
Exercise resumed shortly after, along with pain from a high school knee injury forcing Jane to ring out.
"They told me to go ahead and head back to my dorm room and in the next 24 hours they'd have somebody check on me," she said. "Did anyone come by? No."
"These kinds of things have been tried before," said psychologist, Dr. Wade French.
French took a look at video of past ESOALs.
"There's no research, no proof that these kind of programs have any positive benefit," said French.
He says ESOAL's biggest danger does not come with the event, but what does not happen before it.
"I'm not aware of any type of mental health screening to know whether the children they're putting in this program may not have any problems that this may make worse," he said.
French says programs like ESOAL weeds people out rather than bring them together.
"I wouldn't let my child be in it and I would question the judgement of people who would," he said. "There's much better ways to do this. They're not quite as dramatic but we know they work."
He says there are tried and true methods that can take away the gamble with the minds of teenagers.
We planned to have an on-camera response with Dave Hasz, ESOAL's creator. Teen Mania canceled the interview Thursday morning, saying they would only respond if it was a live interview during the newscast. Other news of the day did not make that possible. We have offered to schedule another interview, but at this time we have not heard from Teen Mania.