Ever since he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes four years ago, my eight-year-old son has begged for my husband and me to let him go to diabetes summer camp. But it wasn’t until a couple of months ago, when my son’s endocrinologist pulled me aside during a routine appointment, that I got the push we all needed. “It’ll be so good for him,” she said, as though she were handing me a prescription.
Now, as spring turns to summer, we just received our son’s registration information for a camp that’s less than an hour away. In my research that lead us to this week-long overnight camp, I discovered what seemed like an endless variety of programs—ranging from day camps to multi-night or – week overnights—that happen across North America and, depending on the camp, cater to kids ages three to 18 to entire families. Most offer a combo of classic camp experiences and diabetes education in the form of peer interaction, teachable moments or structured classes.
Last year the American Diabetes Association (ADA) completed a three-year study to determine the impact of diabetes camps on the kids who attend them. According to the ADA, “Results show improvements in self-confidence, diabetes-related stress, knowledge of diabetes management, and overall diabetes management.”
And the impact on parents?
Honestly, the idea of my kid going away for multiple nights, dependent on the care of strangers, gave me anxiety. But experts agree that diabetes camp has benefits for parents as well. Marisa Hilliard, Ph.D, clinical pediatric psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine said taking that break is good for the entire family. “Parenting any child or teenager—and especially one with a chronic condition like diabetes—takes a lot out of a person. It can be hard for parents to find time to refill their personal resources, but it is so important that they do that. Knowing their children are in good hands at diabetes camp can be a great opportunity for parents to take care of themselves and prioritize their own needs for a few days.”
Hillard said the notion parents have that this is selfish—“My child cannot take a day off, why should I?”—is one she addresses with families often. “Some might worry that this is selfish, but another way to think about it is that parents have to be fully stocked on energy, optimism, and persistence in order to have enough personal resources on hand to best take care of their child and his/her diabetes. Even though the daily grind can sometimes feel like it revolves around diabetes care, this time can also be an opportunity for families to focus on and enjoy other things that are important to them—this can help combat “diabetes burnout” and fortify the family’s strengths.”
If you’re interested in learning more about diabetes camps, you might want to start with the American Diabetes Association (ADA), which sponsors more than 50 camps. From Camp Victory, in Anacoco, Louisiana, to Camp Discovery, in Junction City, Kansas, to Camp Courage, in Rockwood, Pennsylvania, there are accredited programs across the country for kids with type 1 diabetes—and financial aid for those who need help with tuition. The ADA pledges that it is “committed to providing a Camp experience for children with diabetes regardless of their family’s ability to pay.”
Those in the Northeast can look into the Barton Center for Diabetes Education, offering year-round programs to “improve the lives of children with insulin-dependent diabetes through education, recreation, and support programs that inspire and empower.” In summer its Clara Barton Camp, in North Oxford, MA, hosts girls for one, two or three weeks; its Camp Joslin, in Charlton, MA, welcomes boys for up to three weeks. A new Vermont Overnight Camp, in August—co-sponsored by SLAMT1D—hosts boys and girls on a Lake Champlain island for a week in August. The Barton Center offers co-ed day camps in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Long Island; a Family Camp is also available for kids with type 1 diabetes and those who live with and care for them. Barton staffs its camps with “experienced endocrinologists, nurse educators, dieticians, mental health professionals, and well-trained counselors—many of whom have diabetes themselves and serve as role models.”
Then there’s the Diabetes Education & Camping Association (DECA), supporting “400 diabetes programs around the world.” Barton Center and ADA camps are included in DECA’s database, along with camps sponsored by the Nevada and California Diabetes Associations; southern Minnesota’s Camp Sweet Life Adventures; and the Ontario-based Connected in Motion (which hosts outdoor adventures for kids and adults). Diabetes camps, asserts DECA, “build safe environments around youth so they can learn to independently manage their diabetes amongst peers and dedicated professionals in an atmosphere of excitement and adventure.”
This summer will bring new adventures—probably challenges, too—in my family’s journey with type 1 diabetes, but two things are for sure: my son is over the moon with excitement and I can’t wait to sleep.