ATLANTA – Disney World and Universal Studios have always been Jamal Graves’ “happy” place.
But, in 2015, his visit with his mom and younger brother hit a snag.
Disney World does not have weight limits on its rides. But, at 400 pounds, the 15-year-old, who is on the autism spectrum, could not physically fit into the safety restraints on some rides.
After being unable to fit into the safest restraints on some of the rides at Disney World and Universal Studios, Jamal Graves, 22, was inspired to lose 80 pounds. (Sirena Graves)
That is when his mom Sirena Graves says Jamal began to break down.
“People were looking at us, like, ‘That’s a tall man over there crying,'” she remembers. “But, really, Jamal has autism. So, it was really not a tall man; it was a kid that was hurt because he could not ride that ride.”
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The same thing happened again, she says, in both Universal Studios and Disney World.
“The disappointment, it hurt me, really bad,” Graves says. “He didn’t understand because of communication (issues). And, I continued to say, ‘Hey, it’s because of your size. There are just certain rides that we cannot ride.'”
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For years after that, Sirena Graves says Jamal would ask when they could go back to Disney World and Universal Studios.
“It took years before we went back,”- she says. “Because, I couldn’t as a mom get him to understand this is why this happened at the park.”
A few months after their trip, while visiting Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for an endocrinology appointment, Sirena Graves saw a flyer about Children’s Strong4Life program, which offers children and their families a team approach to weight loss and getting healthier.
“I said, ‘This is something my son needs, someone to help guide us.'”
The next day, Graves called the number on the flyer and signed Jamal up for Strong4Life.
“When we started, it was a struggle,” Graves says. “It was a struggle to get him to understand what we needed to do and how we needed to do it.”
But, with Strong4Life, they had an individualized plan, and Jamal had a team, which included an obesity medicine pediatrician, a psychologist, registered dietitians, exercise physiologists and other wellness experts.
“They said, ‘Let’s try small goals,'” his mother says. “And, it still took about three to six months before he got the concept of what all we needed to do.”
Dr. Stephanie Walsh, Strong4Life’s medical director, says change can be difficult.
“Taking it in small steps is really what makes all the difference, focusing on those key behaviors, like decreasing sugar drinks and increasing activity,” Dr. Walsh says. “But, again, you’re not having to be perfect. If you’re having two cups of juice a day, go down to one cup of juice a day. If you’re not really active, start with 5 minutes. Then, go to 10 minutes.”
Sirena Graves says the program offered them menu ideas, suggestions on which foods to add to their diets, taught them how to lay out food on their plates.
She says they now try to incorporate fresh vegetables and fruit into every meal.
And, the team helped them make some lifestyle changes.
“They set a bedtime,” she says. “Even though he was 15 or 16, bedtime was 9:30 p.m.; cut all computer devices off. That was one huge thing we deal with, a lot of technology.”
Jamal gradually switched from drinking mainly fruit juice to water, working his way up to 4 bottles a day.
It took about a year to notice a change, but there it was.
“He steps on the scale, and the first thing, he looks at me, and he just says, ‘I lost weight, I lost weight,’” Graves smiles.
Over 5 years, Jamal Graves dropped about 80 pounds.
He is now down to about 320 pounds, and is still working towards his goal.
His mom says he has never stopped asking about going back to Florida, to Disney and Universal.
“That was still in the back of his mind, getting on those rides,” his mother say.
So, last year, they headed south again for the first time since 2015.
“Going back to the Magic Kingdom, and getting on Space Mountain, I could see the thrill and the smile on his face,” Sirena Graves says.
This time, Jamal Graves had no trouble fitting into the safety restraints.
“It was amazing, because all he kept saying, was, ‘lost weight, I lost weight, I can ride,'” Sirena Graves says. “He was on every ride. He had me walking over 22,000 steps in one day. He had such a joy. It was like, ‘I did it!'”
Now 22, Jamal Graves has aged out of the Strong4Life program, but his mother says he has stuck with the dietary and exercise goals he set.
He now walks twice a day for 30 minutes, and he has joined an adaptive CrossFit program.
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