ESOAL: Past 'interns' reflect on Teen Mania program

KLTV News, Texas/September 22, 2010

Garden Valley, Texas -- They were sold on a spiritual high: teens looking for Jesus, sacrificing sleep and safety, pushed past the point of exhaustion. It is only part of the year long program teenagers nationwide pay thousands of dollars to take part in at Teen Mania Ministries based right in East Texas.

The event happens every September at the Teen Mania campus in Garden Valley, between Lindale and Van. The Teen Mania program is designed to stretch teens both physically and emotionally.

It was an evangelical explosion, a powerful message and pyrotechnics that got the attention of current intern Vinnie Harris. "I wouldn't be here right now if I didn't go through it," Harris said.

It was Teen Mania's Acquire the Fire conference and it convinced the California teenager to move to East Texas for Teen Mania's Honor Academy in August of 2009 where a new experience awaited him.

"It's a lot like 'hell week' for the Navy Seals so that's the only thing I can kind of compare it to," said Harris.

Just one month in, Harris took part in ESOAL. The event offers an Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of a Lifetime. Organizers say the up to 90-hour ordeal is designed to put teens through emotional highs and lows in hopes of better preparing them for tough times in life.

For Vinnie, ESOAL was a welcome shock. "You either get to the point where [you say], 'I'm going to quit,' or, 'I'm going to keep going,' and once you keep going, you start to see the Lord start to work in you and give you the strength to keep going...Without the Lord's strength, it's impossible and it's completely safe and a great time," said Harris.

"What kind of stuff do you do during ESOAL?" I asked Harris.

"I'm not allowed to talk about everything," he replied.

Some past interns have not been as quiet. A Facebook group called "I've Rolled the Hill" discusses an ESOAL right of passage: rolling down a hill to the point of sickness.

Even Vinnie had his own less than pleasant ESOAL moment getting an infection halfway through. "Mine was like on my leg and then I had this weird rash thing going on all the way up my back," he said. "It was weird."

Dr. Kelly Cox has treated patients at ETMC's Lindale clinic for the past three years. He does not know what ESOAL stands for, but he has seen what it does.

"I believe last year we had the bus come by and drop about 10 patients off, and luckily we had an additional building next door to where we could open them up and take care of them," he said.

Cox says injuries ranged from cuts and bruises to more serious sprains and infections - symptoms the current SWAT medic immediately recognized. "When I went through the SWAT academy, we had very similar injuries going through water, exposure to the elements, cold, hot, and exhausting your body," said Cox.

To earn his badge, Cox trained for months preparing for the worst. "If you're not physically ready to stress your body like that, you are more prone to injuries - more prone to situations where the body is not ready for it," he said.

"I'm a pretty tough person mentally so it's like, well, I can handle anything, you know," said Michelle Wiese. "[You put you] nose to the ground and go." Wiese thought her body was ready for ESOAL.

She was focused on finishing as she watched others quit or ring out, unable to continue. "One of my roommates who passed out during ESOAL was carried into the showers and washed off," said Wiese. "She had nightmares."

More than two days in, Wiese faced a nightmare of her own. It happened when an intern slipped during a mudcrawl. "He fell on top of my leg and my knee pulled out of it's socket...the moment that I stepped I took two or three more steps before my knee popped back into place," she said.

Wiese described the painful time in her Teen Mania journal a week later, but kept the details of her visit to ESOAL's medical tent to herself until now. "He looked at my knee put ice on it and walked away," she said. "Twenty minutes later he came back and said do I want to continue - do I want to continue ESOAL. He asked me if I wanted to continue."

Wiese said no and got her chance to ring the bell. She was able to visit a doctor two months after leaving Teen Mania. An x-ray showed her knee had been temporarily dislocated, leaving her more prone to future injuries.

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