A type 1 diabetes conference may not be your first thought on where to go for your summer vacation. But maybe it should be! Aside from learning cutting-edge ideas from leading experts in diabetes care and talking shop with other D-parents, you’ll watch everyone from toddlers to tweens to grandparents forming new and lifelong friendships—in a place where your child’s diabetes makes him or her one of the in-crowd.
Where does all this magic take place? Friends for Life! Every year in July, the Friends for Life conference, organized by Children With Diabetes and sponsored in part by Lilly Diabetes, brings together an international gathering of the type 1 diabetes community for an exciting and educational seven-day extravaganza. This year’s conference will be held at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., July 6 to 12, 2015.
Here’s a look at what makes the Friends for Life (FFL) conference so wildly popular and a sneak peek of what attendees can expect this year. Not able to make it? Keep reading for more ideas on where to meet other T1D families near you.
The Name Says It All
The Friends for Life Conference first began when Laura Billetdeaux, whose son has type 1, shared in the member forums of ChildrenwithDiabetes.com that she and her family would be going to Disney World® over the summer. Living in a small town in Michigan where she didn’t know any other families dealing with the same challenges, Laura put out an invitation on the forum for other D-families to join them at Disney—and 550 people showed up.
Now in its 16th year, FFL annually welcomes thousands of children with diabetes and their parents, adults with type 1, clinicians, physicians, and leading diabetes researchers from all over the world to come together and make new friends for life—truly, in all senses of the term.
The reason for the conference’s continuing success and growth is simple, says Billetdeaux, who serves as VP of Education and Programs at Children with Diabetes (CWD): “Friends for Life is different from anything else you’ve ever done. It is unique. It is magical. It makes ‘life with type 1’ the norm. Everyone fits in, everyone is accepted, everyone is embraced. When you go home armed with new knowledge, new friends, and perhaps new resolve, the future is simply better.”
So what’s a typical day like at Friends for Life? According to Billetdeaux, “Each day is very different. The shoulder days—the Sunday and Monday prior to the conference and the Saturday and Sunday after session days—tend to be very social, with most families spending the day at the hotel pool or at the theme parks. We’re very easy to spot at the pool and around the resort, and CWD generally has a dozen or so staff situated in very visible, accessible places so that first-timer families can ask questions or even request help in meeting other FFL families.”
Wednesday is focus group day, a chance to meet in small sharing groups, and also the grand opening of the exhibit hall, which Billetdeaux describes as “a huge and very festive event.” Thursday and Friday are “session days” for adults and kids with engaging and educational programming for all ages. At night? Organized mix-and-mingle social events take place nearly every evening.
What’s New for 2015
This year there’ll be even more magic, courtesy of Magical Memories Benefit Day, a new conference feature sponsored by Lilly Diabetes. “We’ll have a big buffet breakfast with Disney characters for photo ops and autographs, and then take chartered buses to the Magic Kingdom®,” says Billetdeaux. “Everyone will wear their FFL shirts, and we will be very visible as a group of hopefully a couple thousand parents and kids in the park!”
With this year’s roster of speakers and programming, FFL attendees are in good hands. “We have so much new programming this year that we’ve extended back into Tuesday with some specialty programs on diabetes advocacy and forward into Saturday with some wrap-up discussion groups,” says Billetdeaux, who gives much of the credit for the conference’s diversity of offerings to CWD President Jeff Hitchcock.
“Jeff does a marvelous job of putting together the speaker schedule so that there truly is something for everyone at every session time, whether it’s a discussion group that draws you into an emotional topic or a scientist explaining the very latest research results.”
And of course, making Friends for Life so special this year—and every year—is a pretty big behind-the-scenes crew. As Billetdeaux sums it up, “What you see at Friends for Life is the result of the elbow grease of hundreds of incredibly talented staff, faculty, and volunteers, most of whom live with type 1 themselves.”
More Ways to Meet T1D Families
Friends for Life is an amazing opportunity to meet other families with T1D and learn more about managing life with diabetes. But if you can’t make it this year, there are plenty of other ways to connect with local families going through similar experiences, who can be a great source of support for both parents and children. Check out some of these additional resources:
“In My Community” Calendar
The American Diabetes Association website provides a searchable calendar of upcoming diabetes-related events taking place in local communities across the country, including special events for families.
Family Link Parent Mentor
Are you the parent of a child newly diagnosed with diabetes? Connect with a mentor parent who has walked in your shoes, courtesy of the American Diabetes Association’s Family Link Parent Mentors program. The program is supported by an educational grant from Lilly USA, LLC.
Diabetes Awareness Walks
Taking part in a local charity walk for diabetes awareness is an easy way to support a great cause, get some exercise, and meet other D-families from your neck of the woods. The American Diabetes Association-sponsored Step Out for Diabetes takes place in 95 cities nationwide throughout the year. Or check out JDRF’s One Walk events, which are also held in communities across the country.
Both the American Diabetes Association and JDRF maintain regional chapter offices to connect those in the diabetes community and support their organization’s activities. The JDRF also provides an online community forum for helping families and individuals with diabetes find ways to connect.
Your Diabetes Clinic or Hospital
At your child’s next diabetes appointment, check out the office’s community bulletin board to see if any family or parent events are being planned or if a family support group meets locally. Don’t see anything listed? Consider taking a page from Laura Billetdeaux’s book and post your own notice for a public meet-up. You never know what it might lead to!
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.
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