Diabetes Camp Is More Than Cool

Often kids with type 1 diabetes feel isolated. Even a sleepover is problematic, because other parents are often afraid to take on the care of a diabetic youngster. And finding a friend with diabetes is a challenge because it’s rare that anybody else in town has it: Only about one of every 600 children is affected.

At diabetes camp, however, the whole world changes. It’s just like regular camp, with the cool group cabins, the evening campfires, and the lakeshore lined with colorful canoes. But it’s so much better, because everybody has diabetes and everybody knows how to take care of diabetes. Here, a diabetic kid is home.

In a phone interview, we spoke with Lorne Abramson, Executive Director of the Diabetes Education and Camping Association. Mr. Abramson said that diabetes camp provides a safe environment in which kids are taught to handle their diabetes while being challenged to venture out into the wider world. These are children whose parents, understandably, may shield them a little. Camp dares them to “go for it” like any normal kid, giving them confidence in the process that they are, in fact, just like any normal kid.

Camp also meets the need of diabetic children to fit in. This need becomes more powerful as children enter adolescence, when they most certainly do not want to stand out in any way. Being surrounded by people who are just like them relaxes the tension that children feel when they are different. It allows them to feel at ease, in a way that they may have never felt before. For instance, approximately eighty percent of campers are on pumps. What a relief this can be for a child who usually must explain his pump to everyone he meets.

The children come home happy and confident. All of them want to return next year to camp, where they are totally accepted and can romp with friends to their heart’s content. Meanwhile, their parents have enjoyed, perhaps for the first time since their child’s diagnosis, a respite from constant worry. They have finally had a peaceful vacation at home, knowing that their children were safe in competent and caring hands.

At camp, the children make friends that last a lifetime. In a sense, these are friendships “made in the trenches,” with the peculiar intensity that characterizes any bond involving an “us” versus “them” feeling of inclusion. A special tie binds the children, and their friendships are powerful.

As the campers grow older, some become staff members and take upon themselves the challenge of caring for the upcoming kids with diabetes. These extraordinary young people, seasoned by their years with the disease and their responsibility for the younger campers, have the resilience and character to become the leaders of tomorrow.

In addition to the psychological advantages that camping bestows, real statistics underscore the benefits of camp on the health of young campers. The Joslin Center sponsored a study of how diabetes camp affected A1c’s. While one year of camp had a minimal effect, attending camp for two, three, and four years caused A1c’s to drop dramatically.

Unfortunately, only twenty-five percent of type 1 children go to camp. Many children are on waiting lists. There are far too few endocrinologists, diabetes educators, and physicians to staff enough camps for everyone who wants to attend. Only 144 camps serve the entire U.S., and some of those are day camps. Only about five or so of the camps are year-around, self-owned facilities.

DECA Announces Annual Camp Conference

The Diabetes Education and Camping Association has announced that this year’s annual Camp Conference, “Peak 2007—Soaring to Succeed,” will be held from September 26 through 30, 2007, at Camp UTADA in Tooele, Utah.

Once again, like the very successful Camp Setebaid event in 2005, the conference will focus on younger program staff. The keynote speaker will be Bob Ditter, who has been called “camping’s most articulate spokesman” because of his work with children’s summer camps.

The registration fee is $275, and DECA is hoping to attract corporate sponsorship for youth who cannot afford the full fee. If you have questions, please contact Lorne Abramson, Executive Director of DECA, by email at labramson@eastlink.ca, or by phone at 902-479-0857.

Zula Walters

Zula Walters, the “mother of diabetes camp,” was inspired to start the diabetes camp movement in 1976, when she saw a lone child caring for another child with diabetes because there were no resources for the diabetic child. She and other pioneers of the movement later founded the Diabetes Educational Camping Association, of which she was the first executive director.

She believes that camps are perfect to teach children and teens how to meet their daily challenges and to help them realize that they are not alone. Many times she has seen close friendships made at camp lead to marriage in later life. As for the future, Ms. Walters would like to see diabetes camps emulate the challenge camps of today, with more emphasis on extreme activities like white water rafting, mountain climbing, and wilderness.

Ms. Walter’s entire interview with Scott King is available on diabeteshealth.com/tv.

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