Diabetes Camps Offer Friends, Fun, and a Safe Summer
Two decades ago, Brian Long was a pint-sized elementary school student who didn't know any other kids like him. But then came summer, and that all changed: At the Prescott, Ariz., ADA Diabetes Camp AZDA, Long met dozens of young people who had type 1, too. Eight years of attending camp led to a volunteer position as a counselor that's lasted for 12 years and counting. Today, at age 28, he's prepping to wed his fiancée—a former co-counselor at AZDA—in a ceremony that includes five other people with diabetes, all of whom are also former campers.
While not all kids meet their life partner at diabetes camp, many bring home experiences of a lifetime. To the uninitiated, diabetes camp conjures up visions of group finger pricks, presentations on the food pyramid, and lessons on glucose management. Of course, education and safety are a major part of camp. "It kind of gets you back to checking [your blood glucose] before every meal. Going back to camp shows you the way it's supposed to be," says 17-year-old Derek Krautkremer of St. Paul, Minn., who has attended ADA's Camp Needlepoint in Hudson, Wis., for the past five years. But ask any camper what the week's activities focus on, and you'll learn that, like other summer programs, diabetes camp is about fun. "It was a way to see [that] it's easy to manage this while you're having fun and being just a regular kid," says Long, who today manages the American Diabetes Association's Step Out and Team Diabetes events in and around Phoenix. Recreation varies from one camp to the next, but it usually includes swimming, arts and crafts, capture the flag, team sports, archery, boating, and adventure activities like rock climbing and zip lines.
Find a Camp
Many camps accept applications up to a month before the first session starts (typically in June, July, or August), though others have earlier deadlines. The sooner you register, the better, since most camps are first come, first served. Each camp caters to a different age range—some serve children between the ages of 4 and 9 while others stick to teens between 14 and 18—so check before you register. ADA offers both day and overnight camps. Not sure where to start? Log on to diabetes.org/camps for information on and registration for more than 60 ADA and related diabetes camps in 33 states. There, you can learn more about a specific camp as well as its dates, fees, registration deadlines, and how to apply.
With all summer camps, part of the fun is in spending time away from home—sometimes overnight—with a bunch of other kids the same age. And when it comes to diabetes camps, that camaraderie is even more pronounced. "There's an unspoken bond, even if you don't get to talk to everyone. We've all been there, and we know what it is like," says Moira McAuliffe. Now 17, McAuliffe has been going to ADA's Triangle D Camp in Ingleside, Ill., for eight years. "You don't feel so alone," she says. "You feel more accepted because people understand you. Everyone's diabetic."
Debra Schindler, whose 5-year-old daughter, Alexis, attends the ADA camp New Horizons near Dallas, says camp is a place where kids with diabetes can feel included. "She had not met a little diabetic," she says. "She knows lots of adults; her grandmother has diabetes. She had never had to see another kid go through what she does: have to get three or four shots or have to sit out because your blood sugar is low." For Alexis, camp is a place where she can just be a kid—not the kid with diabetes who has to leave class to get special shots.
The hundreds of other children and teens with diabetes provide more than friendship. Over the course of a week, they become a support system—sometimes even a cheering squad—for one another. "Maybe you're newly diagnosed. Maybe one of your bunkmates has done [insulin injections] for years," says Long. "I've seen times when the whole cabin is cheering a kid on: 'Go ahead, do that! You can do it!' You have nine other guys your age telling you that you can do it, cheering you on." Krautkremer says it was at camp that he learned to give himself an insulin injection.
For many children, the encouragement they get from their peers does more for their independence than a session with the doctor. "The environment of camp where children have each other as role models fosters kids to try new things. It's a good positive pressure to try a new task," says Mary Kreiter, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist with Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago who has volunteered as a camp physician for two decades. Moira McAuliffe's mother, Ann, says that self-reliance is a crucial part of a camping experience that often involves newly diagnosed children who haven't been separated from their parents since their diagnosis. "They're away from their parents, feeling independent and in charge of their disease. Because it is their disease," she says.
That said, kids' independence sometimes comes at a price to mom and dad's sense of security. "I just worried, is somebody going to watch for a high or a low?" says Schindler, who volunteered at her daughter's camp the first year because she was concerned about leaving her all day. (Not all camps let parents volunteer.) Though it's natural for parents to fret before their child's first day, most find that their fears are unfounded. "My little girl's [group] had seven kids, but they keep two nurses and two counselors. You have four people at every time watching your kid," says Schindler. "They're just so prepared. At all times, somebody is with your kid." Ann McAuliffe, who first sent Moira to diabetes camp when her daughter was 9, agrees: "It's so organized," she says. "There are no medical worries. When you leave, you feel so good."
That feeling points to the rewards moms and dads reap from camp, too. "It provides parents with a respite from diabetes. It's a week where they don't have as a primary job the care of diabetes," says Kreiter. For both Schindler and McAuliffe, camp also provided a chance to meet parents of other children with diabetes, swap stories, and develop a support system.
At the end of the fun-filled day, diabetes camp is much like other summer camps that dot the American landscape: It creates lifelong relationships, provides young kids and teens with a means of releasing pent-up energy in a safe environment, and fosters independence. The difference? Parents can rest assured that their children's medical needs will be met. And kids can create some of the most important relationships they'll ever have. For Long, the opportunity is priceless. "Camp has been one of the best things for me. Some of my best friends are from there. My fiancée is from there," he says. "You learn respect, you learn how to handle your diabetes, [and] you learn how to handle yourself. You get so much out of it: You develop teamwork skills; you develop social skills. It's so rewarding on so many levels.
Chicago Diabetes Camps: Did you go?
It's been 60 years since the Northern Illinois arm of the American Diabetes Association launched its ADA Diabetes Camps program. And now it's looking for past campers and volunteers to commemorate the event. If you attended any of the Chicago-area camps-Triangle D, Teen Adventure Camp, Camp Confidence, Camp Discovery, Camp Can Do, and Camp Crossroads-then join in the celebration on Aug. 6. It will be held at Teen Adventure Camp in Ingleside, Ind. All you have to do is e-mail your name, address, the name of the camp you attended, and which years you attended to Jackie Wisz at email@example.com. She'll provide you with all of the information you need.