Hunter Jeffers didn't spend his 13th birthday surrounded by family or classmates at his Martinez home.
Instead, Hunter became a teenager in a ghost town on the New Mexico set of Kid Nation, a CBS reality show that premieres at 8 p.m. tonight.
The Riverside Middle School seventh-grader left March 31 to join 39 children, ages 8 to 15, from around the country at Bonanza City, N.M. The show producers placed the 40 contestants in the now-deserted mining town to see if they could build a working society without the help of adults.
"I'm so glad I did it," Hunter said recently during a phone interview moderated by a CBS publicist. "I'll remember those 40 days in Bonanza City for the rest of my life. It was probably some of the greatest parts of my life. If I could do it again, I would most definitely do it in a minute."
Hunter's mother, Dawn Jeffers, is a teacher and said she found out about the show through an e-mail.
Jeffers said she thought the idea of children governing themselves and working together was an interesting and good fit for Hunter.
When Hunter agreed, his mother signed him up for interviews simply for the experience.
"We just told him to, 'be yourself and if it is a right fit, they'll pick you'," Jeffers said, adding that after he was chosen and left for the show "We missed him, but we knew Hunter was receiving an educational experience that he could not receive being at home with us."
Each episode will end with a town meeting, where one child is awarded a gold star worth $20,000. Hunter and his mother were not allowed to speak about specifics of the show, including whether he earned a gold star, because of a contract with CBS that prohibits them from releasing details. The contract also stipulates that all contact with the media, including interviews, appearances and photos, must be coordinated through the network.
Now hitting the books in seventh grade and playing football, Hunter said he learned a lot about himself and other children while in New Mexico.
"I cannot cook, definitely, for sure," he said, adding he was better at carrying water and other physically challenging tasks and eventually learned to dice potatoes pretty well.
It was learning about opinions, religions and family lives different from his own that Hunter said broadened his view of the world. He learned about the beliefs and ceremonies of Hinduism from another member of the cast.
"I sort of learned about what was going on in the world," he said.
Hunter said his first day in Bonanza City, the contestants were dropped off near the city and had to pull wagons into the ghost town and get sleeping arrangements set up. They later had to set up a governmental order.
"In the end, I'd have to say that I think we did pretty good in that section," Hunter said. "I'd have to say we made a pretty sustainable society."
Jeffers said she didn't see evidence corroborating recent allegations of child abuse and neglect during taping of Kid Nation. She and her husband, Jerry, spent several hours speaking with the show producers, counselors, wilderness experts, medical personnel and other adults who would oversee the taping before sending Hunter to New Mexico.
"He did not have any problems out there. My husband and I are extremely comfortable with our decision to send him and we are thrilled with the way CBS treated us through the whole process and we do not have any problems," Jeffers said.
Hunter returned home when taping ended in mid-May.
He said many of his classmates either don't know he was on the show or don't believe it.
Jeffers said she has plans for some of Hunter's friends and family, including his grandparents from Chicago and Milledgeville, to be at the family home tonight for the show's premiere.
She said it won't be a big party, though, as it is a school night.
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