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Nearly all American Diabetes Association Diabetes Camp stories start the same: with tears.
It's not that camp is terrible—far from it. But camp is often the first time children with diabetes have been away from their parents. Justin Thomas tells the story of his first summer at Camp Carolina Trails: "My parents forced me to go and dropped me off. A week later, they came to pick me up and couldn't find me," he says. "They heard my laughter on the other side of one of our large fields. I didn't want to come home. I was having too good of a time."
The ADA's Family Link has hosted camps for children with diabetes for decades. Across the country, from Florida to Alaska, thousands of children attend day camps and sleep-away camps, all with other kids with diabetes, just like them. The camps are typical in many ways: hiking and horseback riding, arts and crafts, bonfires at night. But they're also staffed with endocrinologists, certified diabetes educators, and adults who have diabetes themselves. They're a safe haven for kids with diabetes.
Nicole Sheanon, MD, a pediatric endocrine fellow at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 10 years old. Later that summer, she attended her first diabetes camp. Now, she's on the medical staff of Camp Korelitz in Clarksville, Ohio, and other diabetes camps around the country. She remembers what it felt like to be surrounded by other people with diabetes—something she had never experienced before camp.
"When I was first diagnosed, I was the only kid in my school with type 1 diabetes," she says. "[At camp], I was in a cabin with 12 other girls, and they all had type 1 diabetes like I did. At camp, you're normal if you have diabetes. It's a great environment to make you realize, 'I'm not the only person living like this.' Camp is a safe place where other people just get it."
It can be an eye-opening experience, says Thomas, now program manager for the ADA's Eastern North Carolina office and director of Camp Carolina Trails. And the campers aren't the only ones with diabetes; many staff members use insulin and meters, too.
"I met a counselor who was probably 21 or 22 years old. He was just the coolest guy ever. We were about to go to dinner, and he asked all the kids to check their blood sugar, and then he sits down and checks his blood sugar," Thomas says of his camp turnaround. "It hadn't hit me until then. . . . There are older people that are cool, and they're going to college, married, have children, doing what they want, and that's what made the big difference for me. All of my peers are going through the exact same thing at the same time, but there's also somebody with experience."
The sense of camaraderie brings campers back to camp year after year—even after they've grown up. Thomas and Sheanon turned their camp experiences into careers. So did Becky Barnett, senior manager of programs at the ADA's Minnesota area office. She's also the director of Camp Needlepoint, Camp Daypoint, and Camp Sioux. But her first experience as a camper was in 1988, after her pediatrician recommended it.
Barnett says she felt isolated, as many people do upon their diagnosis with diabetes. She also felt guilty when her brothers and sister weren't allowed to have sugary treats such as Popsicles, because she couldn't have them. Attending camp changed her whole perspective, she says. She felt supported, and she began to gain some independence. At 11 years old, she resisted her parents' attempts at injecting her insulin or testing her blood glucose. "Something that should take 20 seconds took my poor parents two hours," she remembers. But when she saw the rest of her cabin mates giving their own insulin, she did her own for the very first time. "That was a huge turning point for me," Barnett says. "I believe peer pressure should work in good ways."
|Camps for Adults|
|Grown-ups don't have to miss out on camp fun! Some diabetes camps are designed just for them.|
|Diabetes Training Camp in Pennsylvania helps athletes with type 1 diabetes take their game to the next level. diabetestrainingcamp.com|
|Diabetes Education Camp is still in the works, but it will be a weeklong program in Michigan for people with type 1 and type 2 who are looking to get healthier. diabeteseducationcamp.com|
|The Behavioral Diabetes Institute in San Diego has workshops, ranging from an evening to several days and covering a variety of topics for people with type 1 and type 2. behavioraldiabetesinstitute.org|
Diabetes camps are designed to help kids gain knowledge about their diabetes, as well as independence. Sheanon says about 60 percent of campers she sees use insulin pumps—in fact, it's the reason she got one. Others use syringes or insulin pens for multiple daily injections. Campers and staff alike test blood glucose levels at several set times throughout the day, and staff members are prepared with juice boxes in case someone goes low during an activity. Campers learn to count carbohydrates and often ask each other about the carb counts of different meal options (all of the food at ADA Diabetes Camps is approved by camp dietitians).
By the end of the week, kids with pumps are learning to bolus on their own or trying a different pump site. Older kids are learning to record their own numbers and perhaps notice patterns. Each camp also works with kids to learn to adapt to real-life situations: how to monitor blood glucose levels during increased exercise, for example, or what to do when a meal includes a high percentage of carbohydrate. It's empowering, and they're surrounded by supporters.
"The medical care that kids are going to get at an ADA camp is second to none," Thomas says. "We have so many qualified medical professionals. I'm never worried about the amount of fun they're going to have, and I don't want [parents] to be concerned about the medical care and safety of their kids throughout the course of the week. Those two things really cover the entire camp experience."
Camp can be a life-changing experience for parents as well as campers. Often, it's the first time they've experienced a break from full-time diabetes monitoring. And unlike school, where a nurse might not be on staff, camp has a dedicated staff of people who are trained in diabetes care. That's a relief for parents, says Ed Hirsch of St. Louis, who, with his late wife, Gloria, first sent their sons Irl and James to diabetes camp in the 1960s (Irl grew up to be a renowned endocrinologist; James is the author of the diabetes book Cheating Destiny). Camp was so important to the family that Gloria Hirsch dedicated her life to fund-raising for the ADA, specifically for camp. Camp EDI: The Gloria Hirsch Camp, in Fredericktown, Mo., was named in her honor.
Other than the health aspects of camp, there's very little difference between ADA Diabetes Camps and any other summer overnight camp. The classic camp activities, such as canoeing and horseback riding, are still there. More modern activities, such as ropes courses and zip lines, have been added. The bonds formed between campers make diabetes camp really special—and often last for years.
"Before Facebook and Twitter, we'd get each other's phone numbers and addresses. It was the first time I started writing snail mail," Thomas recalls. "It's comforting to realize that you're not alone, when you probably thought you are alone in dealing with this."
The same is true today. Eric Hulting, 17, of Plymouth, Minn., has attended diabetes camps since he was 6 years old. This year, he'll return as a counselor-in-training. "I've always kind of wanted to be a counselor, ever since I was really young," he says. "I want to help these kids realize that diabetes isn't so weird, to be an older kid with diabetes to show different techniques I've learned, and wisdom."