Second Nature

diabetes camp

Most kids don’t come home from summer camp excited that they learned to read a nutrition label—but that’s exactly what’s so special about diabetes camp. With dozens of programs across the country busily accepting applications for their summer 2013 sessions, now is the time to register your child or teenager with type 1 diabetes (T1D). And if you’re uncertain about sending your child to camp for the first time, read on! We’ve spoken to the experts—campers themselves and their parents. They have reported back to us with a lot of positive news.

Specialized summer camps for children with unique medical needs have been around for decades, and diabetes camps are one of the most common. There are more than 400 diabetes camp programs around the globe, and more than 30,000 kids attend every year in North America alone. The majority of camps serve children with T1D exclusively, but some camps have programs for kids with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Kids get all the usual fresh-air-and-sunshine benefits of traditional summer camp—everything from canoeing, fishing, and horseback riding to trapeze, archery, and zip lining. Just as important, though, they will learn invaluable skills in how to manage their T1D. Anya Tribune, an eight-year-old veteran of Camp Kudos in North Carolina, learns something new every year. “My first year, they taught us how to prick our own finger and take our own blood sugar. My second year, I learned to enter my information into my insulin pump by myself. My third year, I learned how to read the labels on food and add my carbs all together,” she says. And Anya is excited to find out what she’ll learn this summer when she returns to camp.

The personal and social benefits often gained in summer camp—new friendships, improved self-esteem, personal achievement, team dynamics, the list goes on—are for many children magnified by diabetes camp. Cecilia Parker, 14, of Washington, D.C., will attend Clara Barton Camp in North Oxford, MA, for the fourth time this summer. She explains that at camp, when her blood-glucose level is high or low, “I know that I never have to worry about explaining to anyone what’s wrong and why because everyone can understand, which makes all of us feel so close.” Most campers report the same sense of relief throughout the days they spend at camp, surrounded entirely by other kids with T1D. And the self-confidence doesn’t end when the campfire is put out—it often stays with children through the school year.

For the uninitiated, there are several different kinds of camps available. There are day camps and sleepaway camps; there are camps just for boys, just for girls, and co-educational camps; there are camps for the whole family and for particular age groups. Programs usually last a few days to a week. Costs range from a few hundred dollars up to two thousand, and most programs offer financial aid and/or full scholarships to eligible children. Many diabetes camps have already begun accepting applications for 2013 sessions, and registration deadlines are coming up fast.

Diabetes camps are staffed 24/7 with physicians, nurses, and registered dietitians (RDs) who are experts in pediatric T1D care. Many of the nurses and RDs are certified diabetes educators. Most camps also keep other healthcare professionals on staff, including psychologists, social workers, and/or physical therapists, all of whom have been trained in T1D management and emergency care. In addition to staff, most camps employ trained counselors—teenagers and young adults who were once campers themselves and want to continue their camp experience by helping out younger kids with T1D.

Beyond the benefits the experience can give to kids, diabetes camps can also provide a de facto support community for their parents. The decision of whether to let a child with T1D go somewhere unfamiliar for any stretch of time can be a difficult one. But many parents have been in the exact same boat, and they are often more than happy to talk to parents of first-time campers, to answer the thousand worried questions they once had themselves.

Thea Miller, a mother from Douglasville, GA, has sent her 11-year-old daughter, Taylor, to camp and has attended family camp five times. Her confidence in Taylor’s safety at diabetes camp speaks for itself. “My biggest advice I’d give a new parent is to take a vacation while your child is away,” she says. “It is the most secure place to send your child without worrying about her site coming out or how many units of long-acting insulin to give until her return or about lows or highs. Relax and take a break while your child is gone. Parents need to recharge, too, if we’re going to be non-stressed caretakers.”

So often, kids with T1D need the opportunity to decompress, too. Kate Proffitt, 16, from Maryville, TN, is a nine-time veteran of diabetes camp, and has also served as a camp counselor. Her sage advice for first-time campers? “Most of the time, it’s easy for a kid with type 1 diabetes to want to stay out of the spotlight, to blend in and pretend that it’s not a big deal. The truth is, type 1 diabetes is a big deal, and diabetes camp is incredibly rewarding. So my advice is to GO, even if you’re nervous, because this experience will change your life!”

For more information on diabetes camps, visit the Diabetes Education and Camping Association.