Yesterday, just after midnight central time, a large group of teenagers started a 90+ hour retreat in Garden Valley, Texas, that has been criticized by opponents as being dangerous and abusive. The annual “ESOAL” retreat (an acronym for “Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of a Lifetime,” according to the Honor Academy website), subjects participants as young as 17 years of age to extreme emotional and physical stress, and some of the unpaid interns for Teen Mania Ministries who have participated in past years suffered severe medical injuries during the event. Critics are worried that the 2010 ESOAL event which started late last night could be the most dangerous one yet, as this year marks the first time that David Hasz, the director of the Teen Mania Honor Academy program, is going to be a participant in the event.
Honor Academy interns who participate in ESOAL are not told when or where it will start, when it will end, or what experiences they will have to endure over the several-day event. In past years, some of the young participants have been forced to eat things like crickets and cat food, made to roll through other people’s vomit, and even made to lay in a dark coffin with bugs to simulate the experience of being buried alive. ESOAL participants also endure hours of repetitive exercise and verbal thrashings from event facilitators in all sorts of weather — no matter how hot, cold, or rainy it might happen to be.
According to a recent story posted on the Recovering Alumni blog, in 2009, an Honor Academy intern who participated in the event developed meningitis and required extensive medical care. Some years, many participants get so cold and worn down that they actually develop hypothermia and require urgent interventions to raise their core body temperature. These issues have many parents with children in the program wondering if these physical risks are worth the supposed benefit of bringing the teens closer to God.
Teen Mania Ministries, the para-church organization based near Dallas that holds ESOAL each year, recruits participants from its Honor Academy program, a year-long internship program where teens not only work for the organization for free, but actually pay thousands of dollars per year to the ministry for the privilege of doing so. Teen Mania leadership says that participation in ESOAL is optional, although the interns are strongly encouraged to do so, and many former interns have reported feeling great amounts of pressure from their peers to participate in the event.
So far, bloggers have received no reports of serious injuries from this year’s ESOAL event, although reports of serious injuries sometimes take weeks to surface. During a personal interview, one former Teen Mania intern, who wished to remain anonymous for this article, raised concerns that event facilitators might be tempted to put teens in even more dangerous situations this year in light of David Hasz’s participation:
“For weeks, Dave Hasz has been saying he ‘doesn’t want any special treatment during ESOAL’ and he ‘really wants to be stretched during the event.’ ESOAL facilitators, most under the age of 25, are going to see these statements as special challenges, and will think of more disgusting foods to feed participants, more ways to expose them to the elements, and more ways to push them to their physical breaking points — all of which could result in a potentially life-threatening situation for teens participating in ESOAL,” the former Honor Academy intern stated on record during a personal interview for this article.
Concerned individuals can contact Teen Mania Ministries about the ESOAL event directly by calling 1-800-229-8336. Individuals wishing to address concerns regarding the safety of minors at the ESOAL event may contact the sheriff’s office of Smith County, Texas, by calling 903-590-2600.