The campers had just wrapped up a three-point drill and were drenched in sweat.
“Okay! To the sidelines for blood glucose checks,” their coach called out. Laughing and high fiving, the kids trotted over to the table and, without complaint or second thought, pricked their fingers, watched the countdown, read the number, and then took action.
They are children living with diabetes, both type 1 and type 2. And while the usual response of a teen with diabetes when asked to check blood glucose might be an eye roll, here, it’s all quite literally just part of the game.
It’s also the very “teaching moment” type of situation Monica Joyce RD, CDE*, envisioned when she first dreamed up her concept of a basketball camp for children living with diabetes. Ten years ago, it was just that: a dream. Today, thanks to the Chicago Bulls, generous donors, and Joyce’s hard work, The Slam Dunk for Diabetes Basketball Camp is a multi-location program that serves hundreds of kids with bonding, coaching, and yes, some stealth diabetes education.
“Kids don’t want to sit in a classroom setting and ‘learn’ about diabetes,” said Joyce, a registered dietitian who works as a certified diabetes educator in the Chicago area. “In fact, it’s the last thing they want to do. They don’t want to hear about what long-term complications they might face if they don’t take care of their diabetes. But they do want to do well at what matters to them. Like playing basketball well for their team.”
Joyce heard years ago about the Chris Dudley Basketball Camp for kids living with diabetes, and realized that children came from all over the world to attend. She thought to herself, “Well, we need that here.” She mentioned her idea to an adult living with diabetes. “If I had something like that when I was a kid, “ the woman said, “it might really have changed some of my behaviors. Let’s do something about it.” Joyce was confused, until this person told her who she was: the wife of an executive with the Chicago Bulls.
Thus, a partnership was formed. Now in its tenth year, Slam Dunk for Diabetes Basketball Camp has four locations, each of which services sixty to one hundred children. And while the first year’s group was comprised entirely of kids living with type 1 diabetes, Joyce is proud that as of this year, thirty percent of campers are either at risk for or living with type 2 diabetes.
Children in the latter category “have the same teaching moments as kids with type 1 diabetes,” she said. Camps often cater only to children living with type 1 diabetes for several reasons, including the challenges of handling two unique conditions. But Joyce, and the camp, have found a way.
“For a child with type 2, blood sugar tends to drop with the workout,” she said. “And we can say to them, ‘Wow! You did all the drills. And look at the results!’ It really hits home for them.”
Camps run all day, with activities made up of a series of traditional basketball drills, scrimmages, and some healthy competition. Coaches help youngsters focus on swishes and dribbling, while dietitians, nurses, and endocrinologists oversee the daily diabetes routine.
And because all the participants have to do things like check blood sugar, count carbs for food, and pay attention to how lows and highs impact their play, it becomes a natural thing.
In other words, kids who might balk at constant diabetes care at home take it all in stride here.
“At home, when mom says ‘check,’ the response can be ‘ugh,’” said Joyce. “Here, they come barreling off the floor and just do it.”
The same goes for food education. “Since many of the children who attend camp are from low-income homes, some have not had breakfast before they arrive for a day of sports. We talk about good options for eating to play; how to eat to stay healthier, and how eating well can boost your ability to play,” she said.
From that comes a realization that with blood sugar closer to range, and with food used as the “fuel” for workouts and competition comes, we hope, success.
“You see so many of them having those ‘aha!’ moments,” said Joyce. “That’s really what this is all about.”
Because the camp is free, Joyce relies on the support of both donors and the Chicago Bulls. Her dream is to grow to a point that every NBA team in America sponsors a camp in their area.
“Most NBA teams are near major cities, and that means most of them are near children who could benefit from this experience,” she said. “This is a turn-key operation that we can get running for them in a snap.”
In the end, adds Joyce, “Having a free camp where all sorts of kids facing all sorts of challenges and all living with diabetes can bond and learn is a must. The blending on the courts and off of different socioeconomic levels, of type 1 and type 2, young and teen just works. Diabetes is a great equalizer…it levels the playing field for all. I say: why shouldn’t every city be doing something like this?”
Moira McCarthy is an acclaimed writer, author, and public speaker who has shared her story – and lessons – on raising a child living with type 1 diabetes in the media, through books, and on her popular blog, despitediabetes.com. McCarthy has appeared on CNN Live, Good Morning America, and Fox News. She was recently recognized as the JDRF International Volunteer of the Year. Her six books include the top-selling The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children With Juvenile Diabetes and the upcoming Raising Teens With Diabetes: A Survival Guide For Parents. McCarthy is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.
© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience