But there is one enviable quality of a childhood with diabetes: diabetes camp!
The Diabetes Education and Camping Association reports that there are more than 400 diabetes camps worldwide, with more than 30,000 youngsters attending each year. I was introduced to diabetes camp at the age of eight, a mere six months after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, While it took a little getting used to being away from home, I’m so glad I went to camp. I’m confident that the summers I spent at diabetes camp were among the experiences that set me on the road toward being a mature, well-adjusted adult with diabetes.
I attended Gales Creek Camp, which is celebrating it 60th birthday this year. Although organized with the care of diabetes in mind, diabetes camps do not focus solely on diabetes. Campers do not sit around in lecture halls learning about biochemistry. At my diabetes camp we played capture the flag, went on hikes, and tie dyed t-shirts. We sang songs around the campfire, went to our first boy-girl dance, and stayed up way too late talking in our bunks.
Although there’s never a vacation from diabetes, diabetes can be a break in routine and responsibility for both campers and our parents. At my camp, the staff nurses and doctor were in charge of telling us exactly how much insulin we needed, although the older we got, the more influence we could exert over the recommendation. Parents were not called or consulted unless there was an emergency, which in my five years of attending camp never happened.
Many members of the camp staff had type 1 diabetes, and had gone to diabetes camps themselves. It was always fun to see what the “grown-ups” blood sugars were and to see them testing and taking shots alongside us. For many of us, it was our first exposure to what our future would look like.
In addition to watching the camp counselors with diabetes, campers also spend a lot of time talking about diabetes with the other kids. For me, diabetes camp was the first place I had ever met another person with diabetes. A fellow camper even helped me get over my fear of taking injections in my stomach (I thought it was going to tickle!). Seeing my life reflected in the lives of others brought an enormous sense of normalcy to the entire experience of living with diabetes. Spending time with other kids opened my eyes to different ways of managing diabetes, which is incredibly valuable when you might be the only kid at your school or town with diabetes. For instance, I argued with my endocrinologist for months against going on an insulin pump until I heard from my two best camp friends, Clare and Kimberly, how much they loved being on an insulin pump.
“I thought it was important for my daughter to be around other children with diabetes. Since we don’t have diabetes ourselves, we can’t truly understand her feelings and what it’s like to live with diabetes,” Leighann explained. “We thought it would be great for her to see lots of other kids getting injections or wearing insulin pumps, counting carbs, and dealing with high and low blood sugars. We thought diabetes would seem “normal” to her there.”
Quinn says, “When I got there I was a little bit nervous that it wasn’t going to be fun, but it was really, really fun!”
Like most kids, Quinn had a bit of homesickness, which many children (including myself) have when staying away from family for the first time.
“She’s used to us reading to her and snuggling each night, but the counselors created a routine with her, saying they would check in every few minutes until she fell asleep,” Leighann explained. Quinn added: “Sometimes I would cry to get to sleep because I missed my family. I could look at the photo of my family that I brought. During the day I was having too much fun to be homesick.”
Most kids, like Quinn, get used to the experience of camp and the homesickness wears off, usually right as camp ends! Leighann says, “She didn’t want to leave when the week ended and immediately began counting down the days to the next year!”
AJ Owen, a 24-year-old type 1 PWD for the past 16 years, grew up attending diabetes camp at Camp Aspire in New York, and eventually became a camp counselor there.
“I made life-long friends whom I’m still very close to this day. The camp is for children with diabetes, but they don’t focus solely on the disease and make sure everyone has a great time. There was always a dance at the end of the week and, c’mon, that was just awesome!” AJ shares.
Not all camps are your traditional arts n’ crafts type camps either. For the athletic PWDs, one option is the Chris Dudley Camp in Vernonia, Oregon, which serves kids from elementary school until high school. Founded by former NBA basketball player with type 1, the Chris Dudley Camp puts a heavy emphasis on managing diabetes while pursuing athletic achievement.
Kelsey Tullis, a 19 year old with diabetes is a former Chris Dudley camper turned counselor, and an avid basketball player. “Campers are split into teams and each team has a counselor that is fully equipped to test and treat low blood sugars,” Kelsey explains. “We also really encourage the kids to be honest about how they are feeling during activities, doing our best to not let it affect their play time. All the coaches that we work with are well educated about diabetes and are so good with the kids.”
For winter sports lovers, you can check out type 1 snowboarder Sean Busby’s Riding on Insulin, which hosts weekend skiing and snowboarding camps around the world.
If you’re nervous about sending their little (or big) ones off to camp, AJ says, “It doesn’t matter what they say or look like when you drop them off — they’re going to have a life changing experience. They’ll learn about their diabetes and grow from it. They’ll give their first injections with the support of their new friends, they’ll become more independent — they will become older and wiser. It is a week (or however long) that will truly change their lives.
Many camps also have a Family Day or Weekend, where the child and the parent can attend camp, meet the staff and experience some of the activities before the child goes alone. This can be a great opportunity to put both child and adult fears at ease.
“Relax. Your child is in good hands!” Leighann adds.
And if your child is the one putting up a fight about camp, AJ says, “Take a leap of faith and go. You’re not alone with this disease and you’ll make a lot of friends that are literally just like you. Just like you — that’s something that may not impact you now, but it will years down the road. Plus, you’ll get to TP some trees and never get caught. What’s not to like?”
Well, I can’t vouch or condone the TPing of trees, but I can tell you, based on my experience, that diabetes camp is fun and it offered me emotional support I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. You can find a diabetes camp in your area by visiting the Diabetes Education and Camping Association website.