Diabetes Is No Slam Dunk

Monica Joyce had an idea. It wasn’t original, but a good idea inspired by another.

As a dietitian and diabetes educator, she was impressed by NBA star Chris Dudley’s basketball camp for kids, and wondering why it was the only one in the entire country. Perhaps she could start one herself?

She casually mentioned her hope to a patient one day who, lucky for Monica, was Joan Judelson, whose husband Robert happened to be on the on the Board of Directors of the Chicago Bulls. Joan took the idea to him and he loved it, and the Chicago Bulls organization helped Monica realize her dream of a special basketball camp for kids. 

The new camp would be named the Moses E. Cheeks Slam Dunk for Diabetes, in honor of the father of Portland Trail Blazers head coach Maurice Cheeks, who was a patient of Monica’s and would help plan the camp’s activities.

The camp has now been operating every summer since 2004. In contrast to Chris Dudley’s outstanding residential program, Slam Dunk for Diabetes offers single day, three-day and week-long basketball day camps. Amazingly, kids who attend camp don’t pay a dime, no matter what their socio-economic background. What’s more, the camp is open to kids with all types of diabetes-type 1, type 2, and those with pre-diabetes. 

Monica explains the benefits of bringing all types together: “Children with type 2 diabetes benefit not only from the exercise, but also the interaction with kids with type 1, and seeing some of the challenges that they have with testing, eating, and counting carbs.”

Before they play ball, the kids do a blood sugar test with a diabetic educator to help them make any necessary changes before they take the court. All the children have medical charts that include their health background information and a glucose flow sheets. Blood glucose is tracked all day. Kids check their glucose levels regularly, as a group or individually, if someone feels low. If a child goes low, glucose is checked and an educator helps the child decide how many carbohydrates to take, waiting 20 minutes to check glucose again before returning to the court. 

“I purposely avoided formal education,” says Monica. “I think the kids get enough of that at the doctor’s office. We weave these teaching moments as ‘time outs’ throughout the course of the clinic so they’re making decisions as changes in blood sugar are happening.” 

Likewise, kids with high glucose scores are given guidance on insulin dosages. Kids with pumps are walked through decisions on basal rate changes. All are encouraged to be involved with the educators, who help them every step of the way.

The fact that basketball might not be for everyone doesn’t seem to matter. “Not only do the kids come from all walks of life, but they also have different basketball skills. So there are kids who have never played ball, and there are kids who play on their school team,” she says. Despite the mix of skill levels at the camp, the children all seem to be able to play as a team.”There’s a certain camaraderie that quickly develops on the court. I think the kids who play at a higher level tend to help kids who may not play basketball at all.” 

Teams are co-ed, and even when they scrimmage, care is taken to match them evenly regarding skill level. “There’s a competitive spirit but also one of helping and supporting each other. It doesn’t even matter if kids like basketball.” Monica gets notes from kids who admit they didn’t like basketball, but came to meet others their age with diabetes, and had a great time. “It’s a tribute to the coaches,” Monica says. “I think the coaches are wonderful, terrific about making everybody feel equal.”

Every camp is fully staffed with five to eight coaches and six to eight educators, with physicians and psychologists occasionally in attendance. The staff loves having parents there, another feature that’s different from other camps. Parents are encouraged to stay for special workshops on carb counting, managing sick days, and more. “Exhibitors from pharmaceutical companies provide some support towards camp, and bring their latest meters and pumps, so parents can get updated on the latest technology.” Of course, it’s always exciting when a famous NBA star stops by to encourage the kids, such as Dominique Wilkins who himself was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at his retirement from basketball when he was 40 years old.

With expenses of $350 per child, how has Monica managed to keep the camp going?  “The Chicago Bulls and The Bulls/Sox Training Academy (a youth athletic development facility in Lisle, Illinois) have been terrific in supplying us with the best coaches around, basketballs, duffle bags, and t-shirts for the kids.” 

She admits that it’s difficult, and expenses are increasing. “With the growth has come the challenge of meeting the ongoing expenses,” such as paying for gym time and medical supplies. Last year’s attendance swelled to nearly 200 kids, yet even with expenses mounting she has been able to hold to her camp’s philosophy:  never turn anybody away. 

With more sponsorship involvement, she hopes this philosophy will continue to hold true. “It’s important that we continue to market and fundraise. This year we are looking for donations, and hoping to expand on the camp,” which includes a new camp in Milwaukee this summer with the help of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

It’s a lot of work, but the positive feedback Monica receives from parents and kids lets her know it’s all worth it. “For many children it’s a lonely disease. I think we all need to recognize we need more fun activities for kids, not only to learn how to manage their diabetes, but to meet other kids with diabetes.” Managing diabetes is tough for kids, but at this camp, camaraderie and fun are a slam dunk.

(The Moses Cheeks Slam Dunk for Diabetes Basketball Camp takes place during the summer in several locations in the Chicago area. For more information or to donate, go to slamdunkkids.net.)

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