Hikes to the beach, overnight camping, swimming, playing sports, an exhilarating run on the zip line, songs and skits by the campfire. Friends for life. This is the magic of camp, and diabetes camp is no exception.
Started in the 1920’s shortly after the discovery of insulin, diabetes camps have grown to serve more than 25,000 youth, teens, young adults, and families each year. Today the United States has more than 300 diverse camp programs. Staffed by counselors who are former campers and visited by campers who return year after year, diabetes camp is not only a place, it’s an extended family.
“Camp is an addiction,” says McKenna, a counselor at Camp Conrad-Chinnock in California. “Everyone understands diabetes and is always ready with what you need. It’s a place to have a great time, meet new friends, and learn a little bit about how to tackle that ‘d’ thing a little better. Camp will welcome you with open arms, fill you up with understanding, immerse you in knowledge, and send you off with motivation and ‘d’ energy. Camp rocks!”
Not just for youth and not just in the summer, diabetes camping programs are offered in diverse settings for all ages. Traditional residential summer camps are complimented by day camps, weekend retreats, trip camps, wilderness adventures, family camps, day events, sport-specific activities, and more.
Camps often have a partnering local diabetes center. Some are independent nonprofit organizations, some are operated by the American Diabetes Association, and others are offered in conjunction with other youth or recreational groups. What makes diabetes camps unique is that diabetes is the unifying factor.
The premise is that youth with diabetes should be able to accomplish anything in life. Diabetes camps build safe environments around youth so they can learn to independently manage their diabetes among peers and dedicated professionals in an atmosphere of excitement and adventure.
They build a safe environment utilizing a team approach with diabetes-knowledgeable physicians, nurses, dietitians and counselors. Camps have fully equipped healthcare centers and follow recommended diabetes management routines. Parents can rest assured that their children always have access to knowledgeable staff members and the supplies they need to deal with their diabetes management requirements.
Parents of children with diabetes can be understandably concerned about leaving their child at camp for the first time. It is important to feel comfortable with the camp and to prepare your child for the experience. The Diabetes Education and Camping Association has website tools that can help (www.diabetescamps.org). DECA’s “Frequently Asked Questions Page for Parents” is a great resource. The most important thing to remember is that diabetes camp is a positive step toward independence for parents and children alike. Go ahead, parents, have a night out without worrying!
In the end, it’s what campers say that really matters. Campers say that diabetes camp is a vacation from diabetes because it is the one place where their disease is totally understood. Lows, highs, boluses, counting carbs, site changes, basal rates, and so on-everyone knows the lingo and what to do about it. Diabetes camp is a safe haven, a place of friendship and understanding. Read this camper’s perspective:
“When I was diagnosed with diabetes, I was only 6 years old, and I was scared and felt very alone. A friend of ours in the Lions’ Club suggested that my parents take me and my brother to a family camp session the next month. Being at camp made me feel like I belonged, and not only has the experience helped me, it has also helped my friends and family understand, and to help me with my diabetes. When I am home, I get camp sick. I miss the sunshine filled days, Gaga (the best game in the world!), the pond, my friends, the cookie bake-offs, eating spoonfuls of peanut butter when your blood sugar is low…I do not know where to stop or where to begin. Friends made at camp are friends for life; the memories will always be there. I cannot imagine my life without camp, it is my home, and my family too.” (Allison, age 16)
Do not miss the opportunity for diabetes camp this summer. Applications are being accepted at camps across the country. Open houses, “meet the counselor nights,” and other events are being held to introduce new campers to the diabetes camp family. The magic awaits and we are here to help you. Please contact us for more information.
The Diabetes Education and Camping Association (DECA) was established in 1997 to help diabetes camps and others who care for children and families with diabetes in their lives. DECA reaches out to more than 400 diabetes camping programs worldwide, each with a unique way of serving young people and their families. Through resident camps, day camps, family camps, wilderness adventures, trips and other unique programs, we can enhance the lives of thousands of young people worldwide.
To contact DECA, or to find a diabetes camp near you, or to learn about DTreat, our signature program for young adults ages 18-25, visit us on Facebook or our website at www.diabetescamps.org.
Frequently Asked Questions About Diabetes Camp
How should I prepare my child for camp?
Preparing your child and your family for diabetes camp is one of the most important aspects of the positive experience! Most camps have a visiting day before the season opens when you can visit with the entire family, learn the camp routine, meet staff and other campers and see the facility.
Camp is fun and staff members are trained to ease the transition. Utilize them if your child seems abnormally apprehensive. Call the camp director for tips. Talk with your child about the camp experience, about meeting new friends with diabetes. Focus on the fun activities of camp, show your child the camp brochure, read books with a flashlight under the covers at home, and “play camp” before you even get there!
Will they have staff that can take care of my child’s diabetes care?
Yes, all diabetes camps are staffed with trained professionals who understand and can render expert diabetes care to youth with diabetes. It is important for parents to look for camps who follow the American Camping Association standards for camps and that set ratios for diabetes healthcare coverage that ensure your child is supervised by trained individuals.
DECA’s member camps are typically affiliated with major diabetes centers and diabetes professionals-endocrinologists, diabetes educators, mental health professionals and dietitians who volunteer to coordinate and work at camps. In addition, counselors, most of whom have diabetes and were campers themselves in youth, serve as role models. All of these staff members take pride in making sure that your child’s diabetes is expertly cared for.
What if my child gets homesick?
While homesickness does not feel good, it is a normal part of transitioning into independence and leaving the familiarity of home. At camp, we accept homesickness and are well-equipped to deal with it. It is much harder for the parents than it is for the campers and staff. Typically, by the third day of camp, homesickness has subsided and campers have adjusted to their new routine, new friends, and staff members. In the event that homesickness negatively affects your child, the camp director contact you to discuss options for a positive outcome.
What if I get “childsick” (or miss my child)?
Parents getting “childsick”-meaning you miss your child so much you can hardly eat or sleep-is more common than campers getting homesick. After all, they are having a blast with new friends while you are at home worrying about their safety, whether they are fitting in, whether camp is taking care of their diabetes, whether they remembered to bolus, and so on. Don’t worry-we’ve got it covered! Go out for dinner, go to a movie. Rest, relax. This is your time for a respite. You deserve it. It’s okay to take time for yourself. The reunion is only a few days away.
Can I call or visit my child at camp?
Most camps do not encourage or allow parents to call campers during the session, and most diabetes camps (because of the short sessions) do not have visiting days. One of the most important aspects of camp is to allow youth to form a social group where they make friends that last a lifetime and form bonds with others that will carry them through great, and perhaps not so great, times. When parents interrupt that bonding time, it can interrupt the development of that social experience.
Also, having phones all over camp is disruptive. Before cell phones, most camps only had one or two phone lines. Remember, it’s a short session and a little time away is a good thing for your child. It builds independence.
How old are the counselors?
The American Camp Association standards minimum counselor age is 18. DECA member camps typically have counselor or leader-in-training programs for their former campers who are 16 and 17, who, if they successfully complete the program, become full counselors. It’s pretty common to have counselors that range from a minimum of 18 through their twenties.
Do the counselors know about diabetes?
Yes, all counselors not only know diabetes because many have diabetes or a family member with diabetes, they also go through rigorous training before camp to learn accepted diabetes management practices.
Will they know about insulin pumps?
Yes, healthcare staff (endocrinologists, diabetes educators, nurses) supervise and counselors are trained on all insulin pumps.
What if my child gets sick at camp?
All camps follow American Camp Association standards for healthcare delivery in camps. This means that they have a fully equipped healthcare center. Diabetes camps are super-stocked with diabetes supplies donated by our industry partners. Healthcare staff work 24 hours (resident camps) or full-time (day camps) to ensure your child has access to every healthcare need. All camps have policies and procedures for this and for emergencies and off-site emergency care, if necessary.
Are there diabetes-trained nurses at camp?
Yes, typically one nurse for every six to eight campers.
Are there doctors at camp?
Yes, depending on the camp, there are pediatric endocrinologists, endocrinologists, general pediatricians, pediatric residents, and others who volunteer their time.
Can the camp handle my child’s dietary needs?
Yes, all camps have dietitians that handle dietary issues and meal planning. No parent should worry about special dietary needs such as celiac, lactose, or peanut allergies. These concerns will be part of the application process, but do not be afraid to call and discuss this with the team.
Do I send all my child’s diabetes supplies to camp?
Most resident camps provide all diabetes supplies, but you should call ahead to make sure that this is the case. Some day programs do not provide diabetes supplies. The camp paperwork should give specific instructions.
Do I send snacks and low blood sugar treatment?
Most camps ask parents not to send any food items. Snacks and low treatment supplies of various kinds are available throughout camp and used according to specific policies and protocols.
How much diabetes education will be provided?
Diabetes education at camp happens in a variety of ways. Teachable moments occur throughout the camp day-for example, when a child has a low blood sugar from swimming and chats with a counselor about how to treat it-and during diabetes activities, created over decades of fun by diabetes camps everywhere. Professionals will sometimes lead special topic discussions, too. It’s a mix of active learning, spontaneous education, and planned instruction presented at diabetes management times and throughout the day.
Can the camp handle my child’s emotional needs?
Camp staff members are trained to handle camper’s emotional needs during pre-camp, and many camps have mental health staff available on site for special circumstances. The most important thing is for you to share any and all concerns, behaviors, or special circumstances about your child before he or she arrives at camp, so that the camp director and healthcare team can ensure that the staff is ready to make the experience the best it can be for your child. Transitions are important and pre-planning can really help!
What is the check-in process like?
Check-in is different at every camp, but be prepared to spend a few hours meeting with your child’s counselors and members of the healthcare team. A healthcare intake is required by most states. Also, you will have the specific opportunity to speak with a healthcare team member about your child’s diabetes. You want to make sure that the camp has all the information necessary to make the camp experience safe and positive for your child.
When my child starts camp, is there a standard change in insulin, such as a basal reduction?
Because camp can be more active than home for many children (just walking to the dining hall is a lot farther than walking to the dining room, not to mention constant activities), camps may suggest a small reduction in insulin dose. Speak with the healthcare team about your child’s activity level at home and whether you feel this is appropriate.
What is the target range for blood sugars at camp?
Target blood sugar ranges should be decided by the healthcare team, the camper, and the camper’s parents.
How often will you check my child’s blood sugar? Any midnight/ 2 am checks?
As a standard practice, most camps check blood glucose before breakfast, mid-morning, before lunch, mid-afternoon, before dinner, before bed and at 2 a.m. (if blood glucose at bedtime is below a certain standard set by the healthcare team and/or the parents).
What is the communication between the camp directors/counselors with the parents while my child is at camp? How fast can I expect to receive a follow-up call if I’m concerned about something?
Communication between parents and the camp varies depending on location, cell service, phone availability, mail service, etc. Check the camp’s materials for more information. However, if you have a specific concern or need to reach the camp regarding your child, an emergency contact is always available. If you call and leave a message (because the phone is in use), you should expect a call back right away. If your child is at an adventure camp and out of cell service, emergency response has been pre-determined. Check adventure camp materials for details.
Are there any current parents of this camp who I could contact to answer any questions I may have prior to dropping my child off at camp?
Many camps have a list of parents who are willing to talk to new parents about camp. Check with your child’s camp to see if this is possible or visit the GLU Forum (insert link).
Shelley D Yeager, MA, LCSW
Director of Outreach and Development
Diabetes Education & Camping Association