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Diabetes Camps

It was late July, and I was tucking my seven-year old daughter into her bed at home – the first time I’d done so after her two-week stint at diabetes camp. As has always been our tradition, I read her a story and then settled in to have our “nightly chat.”

Only she started crying. Hard. And she said between sobs, “Oh, Mom. I miss our bedtime talks.”

“It’s okay honey, you’re home. And I’m right here.”

She sat straight up in bed and looked at me like I was crazy.

“Not you, Mom. My camp friends. I miss our chats.”

Perfectly said, and accepted by this mom. Because for us, through Lauren’s growing years, diabetes camp was more than just a cool place. It was a haven for her, where she was “the same” instead of “different,” where she could always find someone in the mood for a quick game of “pump tag,” and where no one commented if she had to check her blood. It was a respite for me. Since I knew she was safe and happy (and safe), I could take two weeks to renew my energy and be ready for the hard work of caring for her the coming year.

There was a reason one of the first things the nurse in the hospital said to us when Lauren was diagnosed was “send her to diabetes camp.” Our children with type 1 diabetes need a place to bond, share, play, and just be. And we caretakers need time off. Diabetes camp, for my family and for so many others, has long been the bridge to the cure. Below us, the waters may be rough at times, but the bridge is always there for us to use when needed.

How does a family decide if camp is right for them and which camp to choose? I was lucky enough to be close to the Clara Barton Camp for Girls With Diabetes, one of the first diabetes camps in the world. Both Barton and its boy’s camp, Camp Joslin, have stellar reputations. But even with choosing Barton, there were questions I had to ask and situations I had to check out before I could entrust them with my d-daughter. The same goes for any camp decision. With many camps run by passionate volunteers (usually an endocrinologist or CDE; sometimes a parent), it’s important we check out exactly what is going on at any camp we consider.

Shelley Yeager is Director of Outreach for DECA, the Diabetes Education and Camping Association, the world’s only collective of diabetes camps, and a group that is working to create standards and rules for all diabetes camps (as well as serving as a resource for parents looking into diabetes camps for their child. Check out their site for tips).

She agrees that there are steps parents should take in choosing a camp for their child with diabetes. The first is what all parents choosing any kind of camp should do: Make sure they are American Camping Association (ACA)-accredited. This covers standards such as staff ratios, safety in facilities, cleanliness, and more.

But from there, parents or other caregivers of campers living with diabetes must find out more. Some factors she suggests looking for include:

  • A medical director who oversees the healthcare management of the program.
  • A program nurse trained in diabetes management.
  • A low ratio of campers to nurses.
  • A pediatric endocrinologist on site for at least part of each day (preferably 24/7).
  • Counselors trained in helping children living with type 1 diabetes (it’s not enough for a counselor to live with type 1 diabetes he or she needs to be trained as a counselor, as well).
  • Camp staff trained in your child’s daily diabetes plan and the medical devices your child uses.
  • A dietitian or CDE who not only oversees carb counts for meals and snacks, but helps create a specific plan for each camper. But don’t expect low carb or diet lessons: kids at camp usually learn how to incorporate a range of foods into their lives…even ice cream sundaes.

For me, these questions were answered at a camp open house. I was able to not only get the answers, but also meet the people who filled many of those roles. This is not always doable, but a phone call with the camp director may help ease your worries.

Parents must choose, too, if they want an overnight camp or a day camp for their child. Day camps are a good start and can be a fun transition to overnight camp (and remove issues like homesickness for younger kids). For my daughter, overnight camp was the answer from the start. She was a confident child, and I knew from my own childhood of camping that overnight camp is an amazing experience. I wanted that for her.

Still, it took a lot for me to leave her at Clara Barton that first time. I hung around for hours, making sure she was all set with what she needed; re-visiting the medical team to remind them about her care. Finally, I left, hoping she’d love it and be fine.

She did and she was. I joked that the next year I just slowed down the car, shoved her out the door, and then peeled off; but that’s not too far from a joke. For ten more summers, my daughter went off to camp and thrived. And I stayed home and rested. And spoiled my non-d-child!

Today diabetes camp stands as one of my daughter’s most positive and wonderful memories of growing up with diabetes. While some parents think d-camp is about being “surrounded by diabetes,” but in our experience, it actually works out to be quite the opposite. When everyone around you lives with it, it becomes beside the point. At camp, kids feel the same as everyone, and from that comes an amazing bond between new friends. Lauren remains close friends with her fellow campers, and we still hold her camp close to our hearts.

With the right questions and answers, diabetes camp is doable for nearly every child. Even if you have to travel a little distance, this d-Mom says go for it. Just slow the car down enough for them to get out safely when you drop them off.

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.

© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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