Gina Gavlak Tells Her Diabetes Story
For the volunteer ADA advocacy chair, the personal really is political
Gina Gavlak didn’t always know her way around Capitol Hill. In fact, as a young woman, she says she was lucky if she could remember the branches of government in her home state of Ohio. But that all changed when she got involved with the American Diabetes Association.
Gavlak, RN, BSN, 43, of Sheffield Village, Ohio, is a national board member of the ADA and chair of its national Advocacy Committee. She’s spoken with leaders at every level of politics in an effort to make life better for people with diabetes. She’s got some high stakes in the results: She’s lived with type 1 diabetes for 33 years. And she can draw on experiences beyond her own: She is diabetes program development coordinator at Lakewood Hospital, a Cleveland Clinic hospital, and the hospital’s Diabetes and Endocrine Center. She’s also an emergency department nurse. She talks, works, and relates every day with fellow people with diabetes.
It’s been 20 years since Gavlak first volunteered with the Association, but she remembers it clearly. After trying to become active with another diabetes organization, Gavlak grew frustrated that the group’s leaders wanted to focus on finding a cure, while she was also interested in finding ways to make life easier for those already living with diabetes. “I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t the right place for me to be,’ ” Gavlak remembers. “I wanted to see what I could do besides fund-raising and things like that.” So she called her local ADA office.
Almost immediately, Gavlak went to work, bringing her nursing skills to her local office once a month as it hosted diabetes screening days (they’re not held anymore). Gavlak asked what she could do while waiting for visitors. She stuffed envelopes for a Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes® mailing. And she never left.
“I was always involved in different things, fund-raising, different programs,” Gavlak says. In 2004, she learned about the Association’s advocacy, reaching out to political leaders to influence legislation to benefit people with diabetes. The Diabetes Cost Reduction Act, a bill to make sure insurance plans covered the tools and services to manage diabetes, was a hot-button issue in the Ohio legislature. Gavlak attended an Association-sponsored advocacy workshop to learn why it’s important for legislators to hear from their constituents. “I realized that when you were talking to people in the State House, they might be politicians but they didn’t understand medical [information],” she says. “So that’s when it really became very clear that this is the best way to share your personal story.”
Gavlak is now comfortable discussing diabetes one-on-one or with larger groups—a good thing because, as the ADA’s advocacy chair, it’s her job to reach out to legislative leaders to help them understand diabetes and urge them to make changes that help people who live with the disease. She addressed senators at the U.S. Capitol as they debated health care reform in 2009. “I talked about myself, and that I had always been very fortunate that since I was diagnosed, I have always had what I need for my diabetes,” Gavlak says. “But money was tight for my parents. When you start sharing those stories with someone at the state level or a member of Congress, those are the stories that people remember.”
The willingness to share her story—both personally and professionally—is part of what makes Gavlak a great volunteer, says Shereen Arent, the ADA’s executive vice president for government affairs and advocacy. “She has a gift for bringing to life the stories of her emergency department patients who struggle to manage diabetes without adequate health insurance and the stories of young children being denied the care they need at school,” Arent says. And then Gavlak makes sure to put people in touch with the Association’s resources in these areas. Arent calls Gavlak “the entire package and then some,” citing her passion for helping others. “I’d be hard-pressed to come up with an area within advocacy where her smarts, dedication, and passion haven’t made an enormous difference.”
Gavlak says she hopes her story shows that if she can become an advocate, anyone can. It’s her hope that she can continue to be a voice for people with diabetes—not just in the abstract but specifically for herself, and now for one of her sisters, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2013. “[Advocacy] has always been a very positive thing for me,” Gavlak says. “I really like that the American Diabetes Association gives me the opportunity to be a part of something that is so much bigger than me, that’s really making a difference in diabetes. There’s always a way. The more you talk about what you’re doing, you’d be surprised who takes an interest.”
Ready to get involved? Visit diabetes.org/advocate to learn more about becoming a Diabetes Advocate.