Children with type 1 diabetes can get to feeling like no one understands what they’re going through. And, in many ways, they’re right: If you don’t have type 1, you really don’t know exactly how they feel. But there are others who do — and they congregate each summer at a special place called diabetes camp.
Each year over 30,000 children attend diabetes camps across North America, many of them run like traditional summer camps — some with sports or other interests as the focus — with special programming to help kids learn about and manage their diabetes. Since every camper and many of the staff members at diabetes camps have type 1, kids get a chance to feel just like everyone else. Everyone can relate to what they deal with on a daily basis, because they’re dealing with the exact same thing. It’s a unique experience that can create strong bonds and memories to last a lifetime.
Anything new can be frightening, though, so perhaps your child — or his or her parents! — could use a little more insight into what to expect. We asked kids and parents who’ve been there to share their experience and their top tips.
Deciding Whether to Sign Up
Shannon, 11, who was diagnosed years ago, encourages all kids with type 1 to take the plunge and go to camp. “If you try it, you’ll like it,” she says. “I was a little nervous about making new friends or getting homesick at first, but before long I made a close friend who was like the sister I never had! Diabetes camp made me feel normal for once in my life. Everyone around me had diabetes, so no one wondered when I would test.”
Picking the Right Camp
Emma, 12, who was diagnosed at age 5, says she leaned on her mom — who also has type 1 diabetes — to help her choose the perfect camp. “My mom was the first one who brought up the idea of camp, since it’s a great opportunity to learn more things about your diabetes and meet other kids that go through what you do every day,” she says. “I told my mom what kind of camp I was looking for, and she helped pick out my camps for me. Last summer, I told her that I wanted to go to a basketball camp — so I attended the Chris Dudley Basketball Camp. She ended up finding my favorite camp so far! I had lots of fun, and I can’t wait to go back this summer.”
“The first night is the hardest,” says Shannon. “But my mom surprised me by packing a lot of fun magazines that the other campers wanted to read, too — so it was fun chatting about celebs! That helped me start to adjust and make friends. The counselor was great, too!” Chicago psychologist Catharine Devlin, Psy.D., who has type 1 diabetes herself, recommends personally introducing your child to his or her counselors and at least one other camper on the first day. “It’s a great way to break the ice,” says Devlin.
Also remember to manage your own anxiety about leaving your child behind. “Sometimes parents’ anxiety can make a child’s anxiety worse,” says Devlin. If you’re confident that your child can handle the separation, he or she will more than likely trust that you’re right. Of course, a little residual nervousness is normal; express to your child that this is OK, and that he or she should go ahead and participate in activities even if feeling shy while doing it. “From there, the shyness usually goes away on its own,” says Devlin.
Nick, 13, who was diagnosed with type 1 at age 6, was very emotional after diabetes camp. “As he cried, he expressed how much he felt like a ‘normal’ kid at camp,” his mom Natalie says. “He overcame missing camp by looking forward to the next one he would attend.” Nick’s sister Johanna, who also has type 1, exchanged phone numbers and email addresses with fellow campers to stay connected with her new friends.
Spreading the Word
Quinn, 27, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 13, says she now makes it her mission to share her diabetes camp experience with others. “Diabetes camp helped me realize that diabetes didn’t have to be the headline of my life — instead, it could be the footnote. So what if my pancreas decided to stop working? That was nothing to be ashamed of — and diabetes camp is where that finally hit home,” she says. “I now sit on the Community Leadership Board for the American Diabetes Association and am very passionate about telling others about what diabetes camps have to offer. They are an incredible opportunity … and I want to spread the word so that others can benefit from the experience like I did.”
Click here for information on the Lilly Camp Care Package, an initiative to provide diabetes camps across the country with educational resources to help children learn to manage their type 1 diabetes.
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.