The search for a cure for diabetes is a noble pursuit, but a cure always seems to be another ten years down the road. Finding a way to be healthy in the here and now is what matters for people with diabetes. In 2005, Peter Nerothin started Insulindependence (IN), a nonprofit organization that aims to “revolutionize diabetes management” by leading experiential diabetes education expeditions for type 1 youths.
This program reminds me of something I did when I was in high school at a liberal, private boarding school in New Hampshire. I had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a freshman, and during my junior year, I took part in an outdoor program called Mountain Classroom. The mission of the program was to “combine outdoor education and academic inquiry, so students can examine the complex and intricate connections between nature and culture.”
On my trip, there were 10 students and two instructors. We set out in a van in the dead of winter with tents, backpacks, and hiking boots. Over nine weeks, we traveled to a ranch in Texas, spent a week in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, rock climbed in Arizona, and paddled through the bayou in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico in Florida.
My memories of this trip are vivid, but the one that will remain clear in my mind forever is the day I hiked out of the Grand Canyon. We’d been in the canyon for a week and were dirty, exhausted, and emotionally on edge. The climb up the South Rim was grueling, harder than anything I’d ever done before, and there were moments when I thought I couldn’t make it. But even though I stopped to rest, I was the first girl in our group to reach the top, and the only one with diabetes. As I stumbled onto the parking lot, I had never felt so much pride in all my life. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, and I knew that if I could do this with diabetes, I could do anything.
That trip out of the Grand Canyon was more than twenty years ago, but I still remember it. I think about it when I’m frustrated with my blood sugar or when I’m feeling overwhelmed with the regular demands of my life. I remind myself that if I climbed out of the canyon with diabetes, I can do anything (help my kids with homework, cook dinner, go for a run while pushing the jogger, turn my story in on deadline, ask my husband about his day and still have a moment for myself).
When I talked to Thomas Peak, Director of Program Operations at IN, I realized that Insulindependence is providing this kind of empowering experience for kids with diabetes across the country. Through physical challenges, they are helping attendees learn how to manage their diabetes in the here and now. They are giving these kids the emotional strength to draw upon when things get tough. “There is no price that can be put on the outcome of connection and learning that you’re not alone,” Tom says. “That’s the kind of outcome we want to have here at IN with our Junior Captains. We want to provide an outlet so these kids have someone to talk to. Our hope is that these young people will stay connected with one another after it’s over.”
Julianne Viadro, mother of nine-year-old Triabetes youth program participant Keaton Viadro, agrees. She says, “I really think it’s important that Keaton have good role models, and my job as a mom is to give him a foundation for the rest of his life. I think that as he goes through his life, I’m not going to have a lot of control later, but now I can expose him to amazing people and athletes and mentors that are doing positive things with their life. When I saw the website and I saw what the organization was doing, I really felt driven that he should be a part of it.”
To foster the next generation of leadership in the diabetes community, IN recently created a “Junior Captain” program. “Captains use skills learned at the University of Insulindependence to mentor type 1 youth in a one-on-one setting, as they work together toward a recreation-specific fitness goal. The programs also offer opportunities for adolescents to interact with their peers in fun and challenging environments. Ultimately, program participants develop lifelong relationships that serve as a foundation of support as they each continue along in their journey with diabetes.”
Twelve-year-old Allison Duffy, a Triabetes youth program participant, says, “I wanted to meet more diabetic kids, because I was the only one at my school. A Triabuddy is your buddy for the triathlon who helps you through the experience of training. You help each other and are always there for each other. They are kind of like your friend during the journey.”
A cure for diabetes will be a dream come true, but the reality is that we need programs like Insulindependence to show us, through physical challenges and camaraderie, how to live our best lives today, in the here and now.