Going Camp Crazy
Diabetes camp is so much fun you might want to go forever. (Really!)
Paul Madden's parents wanted to send him away to a special diabetes camp. "I had no idea why," he says. "I didn't want my diabetes to be my specialty." That was 35 years ago! He must have had a good time, because now he manages a diabetes camp for the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
Like many kids, Mr. Madden learned that camp is great for trying things you've never tried before, like kayaking, canoeing, archery, and rock climbing. There are also team sports, arts and crafts, and dancing. And camp is a great place to make new friends.
There are all kinds of different camps for kids of all ages, but if you've never been camping before, a camp specializing in diabetes is a good place to start. At diabetes camps, the doctors, nurses, counselors, and other staff members know all about diabetes, and many of them have diabetes themselves.
"Everybody knows what you're going through," says 16-year-old Darci Stark. Darci has gone to Bearskin Meadow Camp in northern California for the past three years. "When you get low blood sugar, they understand. And if anything's wrong with your diabetes, someone there can help you with it."
At the start of Mr. Madden's Elliot P. Joslin Camp, everyone gathers around a campfire. Mr. Madden says, "Whoever has diabetes, please raise your hand." When nearly all of the hands go up (including those of many of the staff members and counselors), you know you're not alone.
"You get to be with other kids with diabetes, which is something you don't always get to do," says Richard Matthews, 15. He has gone to Elliot P. Joslin Camp for the past two years. There he met kids and counselors from all over the country—in fact, from all over the world. He still writes to many of them.
The friends you make might be friends your whole life. "I know two men who are about sixty years old who met at camp when they were seven," says Rick Mason, camp director of the Bearskin Meadow Camp. "They were best friends then and are best friends now."
Learning for All Ages
Diabetes camps are a good place to learn about controlling your diabetes. Younger kids learn the basics, like how to give yourself insulin injections and how to test your own blood sugar. Joey Silvestri, who is 5, even earned prizes at Bearskin Meadow Camp last summer! But that's not what he remembers best: "I liked meeting new friends, sleeping outside, climbing on the rocks, and camping. It was fun!"
Teenagers at diabetes camp learn how to fine-tune their blood sugar control while hiking, fishing, or playing soccer. For instance, when everyone stops to test their blood sugar, the counselor can help you figure out how much food or insulin you need to keep your blood sugar in the normal range.
The counselors are really the key to learning. Most of them started out as campers themselves. You can learn a lot just by watching what they do and listening to them. It's also nice to see older people who have managed to be healthy, happy, and athletic with their diabetes. "You get to see someone you think is really cool handling their diabetes very well," says Rick Mason.
Darci Stark plans to be a counselor-in-training this summer. "I want to help kids who are newly diagnosed—help them know it's cool and we're here. I just want them to be able to come up here and have fun like I did," she says.
What to Expect
Can kids at diabetes camps do all the same activities other kids do? Canoe down wilderness streams? Backpack on rough mountain trails? Compete in team sports? You bet! In fact, these activities help keep blood sugar under control and keep you healthy and energetic. Besides, they're fun!
A typical day at camp might start at dawn, when everyone wakes up and tests their blood. Then, after the day's first insulin injection, everyone eats a breakfast that fits into their meal plan. The rest of the day—blood tests, insulin injections, and meals—are scheduled between all kinds of activities: Outdoor activities like archery, backpacking, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and sailing; team sports like soccer, baseball, basketball, and street hockey; and dancing, performing, arts and crafts, and even radio broadcasting.
If you haven't had diabetes for very long, you might want to consider a "family camp," where other family members join you at camp and learn about diabetes, too. "When you're younger and you have this new disease, it's scary, and all these things are coming at you at once," says Darci Stark, who went to a family camp after she got diabetes. "If you're scared about it, family camps are really awesome because then you have your family there, but you still get all the education and experiences."
Richard Matthews says he didn't really want to go to diabetes camp because he didn't know what to expect, but his mother talked him into it. "I had a blast the first year, and then all the next year I was bugging my parents to go," he says. He liked it so much that he's going to be a counselor-in-training this summer, and he wants to stay involved for years to come.
But the camp experience doesn't have to stop with diabetes camp. "If your top goal is to go to a basketball camp or a cheerleading camp, my goal is to give you the skills and the emotional support so that's where you go next summer," says Paul Madden.
By Robert Dinsmoor
Photos courtesy of Bearskin Meadow Camp and Elliot P. Joslin Camp
Published in C.F.K. Magazine Summer 1996
Posted April 2000