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The Healthy Living Magazine

Kids Find Friends and Fun at ADA Diabetes Camps

By Katie Bunker ,

Will Anderson and Emma Petersen at ADA Camp Daypoint in Hudson, Wis.

For a child, being diagnosed with diabetes is scary enough, let alone being the only kid in school facing a daily routine of finger pricks and insulin shots. Summoning the gumption to inject yourself, learning the intricacies of blood glucose control, and explaining carb counting to friends in the cafeteria can be overwhelming.

But summer offers a respite from all that: ADA Diabetes Camps. There children with diabetes can have fun, realize that they are not alone in having diabetes, and build independence. Most camps last a week, although some offer two-week sessions. Older kids bunk at overnight camps, while the youngest children usually attend day sessions. Age-appropriate programs are tailored for children as young as 3 and as old as 17.

Ian McConnell, 24, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 7 and first attended ADA Camp Needlepoint in Hudson, Wis., the following summer. He has been going back ever since, now as a counselor.

"I did not know a single other kid with diabetes when I first went to camp," McConnell says. "In a big way, when it comes to diabetes, I think camp is the best step a kid can take. For the week they are away from home, they're learning to be self-sufficient."

Learning by Doing
ADA Camps offer children useful tools for managing their diabetes and a chance to just be kids: playing games, swimming, and canoeing. Camp is not a series of classroom lectures about diabetes management; the last thing that children who have been in the hospital want to do is feel as if they're back in one. Yet campers invariably come home having learned much about diabetes.

Six-year-old Emma Petersen, who was diagnosed with type 1 two years ago, attended ADA Camp Daypoint (Needlepoint is the overnight camp) in Hudson last summer. Her mom, Laurie, a registered nurse in obstetrics, volunteered there. "My daughter went into camp not checking her own blood sugar, and by the end of the week she was checking it," Laurie Petersen says. "They watch the teens and their peers do it . . . and realize, 'I can do this.' "

To find Camp programs and registration deadlines for your area, visit diabetes.org/camps.

Since all the campers had diabetes, it was easier for them to take the disease in stride. "When we're at home, [the things we do] are always because of Emma. Our day kind of revolves around diabetes," Petersen says. "It was neat to see these kids have a normal camp setting where diabetes is still part of their day, but it's not the main part of their day."

Parents get a lot out of camp, too, Petersen says. Moms and dads accustomed to having trouble finding a babysitter to entrust with keeping track of a child's blood glucose can rest easy. At camp, their children are in the hands of experienced diabetes care professionals and youth counselors who live with the disease themselves. "Bringing the kids back to the parents at the end of the day, you can see the relief in their eyes [that] they didn't have to worry about their child all day long," she says. "Camp helped me as a parent to say we can go with the flow and not be as rigid."

Tools for the Future
As for McConnell, ADA Camp Needlepoint has shaped his life in many ways, some unexpected. There, he experienced the same firsts as any child who hasn't been away from home before, including his first bout of homesickness. But he also learned a lot: "Camp made me more aware of diabetes and gave me the tools to speak about it, so I could tell teachers and friends how to recognize a low," he says. And camp is the place where he met people who are some of his best friends today.

At 17, McConnell became a Needlepoint counselor. Watching the kids grow has been rewarding for him. "They become so much more confident and self-sufficient in five days' time," he says. "Camp has really empowered them to take charge of their diabetes."

Such experiences have also helped chart McConnell's career path. Though he studied communications at the University of Minnesota, his time as a camp counselor and a church youth director convinced him that he wanted to work with children year-round. He took a job as youth coordinator at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wasilla, Alaska. "Having that week or two with kids and having a direct impact on their lives while learning from them, too, was such a big thing for me," he says.

That's why, despite the 2,500 miles between Alaska and Wisconsin, McConnell plans to be back again this summer at Needlepoint.