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A Visit to Camp Hodia with Dr. Amy Walters

Volunteer work at a diabetes camp

Laura Kolodjeski of Sanofi US DiabetesLaura Kolodjeski

In a post earlier this week, I introduced Dr. Amy Walters, Ph.D., Director of Behavioral Health Services for St. Luke’s Humphreys Diabetes Center, and mother of a daughter who lives with type 1 diabetes. Amy also serves as Director of Psycho-social Services for Idaho Diabetes Youth Programs, which oversees Camp Hodia, a group of five diabetes camps situated in the Sawtooth Wilderness area. Today I’d like to share some of her experiences from volunteering at the camp for the past 17 years, and how it may contribute to kids’ mental health.

Amy volunteers in the Hodia Teen Camp, a week-long overnight diabetes camp for kids entering into grades 9-12. “It’s a very busy, demanding week, but the results are so rewarding,” she said. “The kids seem to absolutely love it and I always come back feeling energized and excited about the work I get to do. I can’t say enough good things about this program. It’s what got me into this business. I just love it.”

During camp, Amy leads group chat sessions they call “pow wows.” “Everybody sits down and talks together at the cabin,” she said. “Sometimes we talk about some of the things that are happening in the kids’ lives with their diabetes, and challenges they face. Some people share stories about things they’ve overcome. It’s a really empowering experience for everyone involved.”

Some campers also take advantage of individual consultations with Amy. “When you have 95 teenagers together, quite often something comes up,” she said. “Social and emotional issues are common. Anxiety and depression are also both known to be common in people with diabetes. About 50 percent of our patients struggle with that. Sometimes kids will share with their counselor about family conflicts that are going on, so I might also meet with them about that.”

Kids and counselors alike are always on the move at Camp Hodia, with activities like whitewater rafting, hiking, kayaking and repelling. “We want to encourage a love of physical activity, which can play a part in good diabetes management,” Amy said. “I think it’s also a great opportunity for hands-on education. We hiked to a lake at 10,000 feet with a group of kids. We talked about how activity can affect blood sugar levels, the importance of having snacks, what kinds of supplies to bring and made sure everybody had water. Then, as issues arose, we’d just talk about it. ‘Okay, someone just had a low; what can we do about that?’ We always have medical staff with us to attend to any issues that might arise.”

The week concludes with a candlelight ceremony. “There are always tears,” she said. “Some of our tough teenage boys even tear up as they talk about just how meaningful the experience is, how they feel back on track with their diabetes, how they feel a part of something and how they feel normal. I think it just brings home how important a peer support group can be for people with diabetes. It’s an opportunity to share and be a part of a community.”

In 2012, Amy was able to share the camp experience with her daughter. “I did the youngest camp that year, Hodia Shooting Stars, because I wanted the opportunity to do that with her,” she said. “It was thrilling, and a bit nerve-wracking, to see her grow and try new things. I wanted her to have an opportunity to make her own way so she went to camp without me the next year. As a parent, it’s a pretty scary thing, letting your child go off to camp for the first time and entrusting someone else with that responsibility of taking care of them and their diabetes. That was a personal growth opportunity for me and gave me a nice perspective to recognize what parents go through.”

From a young age, Amy’s daughter is proving to be quite the little advocate for diabetes awareness. “We always had a kid’s doctor kit in our play room, and we put extra diabetes supplies in that,” Amy recalled. “When my daughter was in kindergarten, she had a friend over to play. I later got a call from the mom, saying she needed to know where to get one of those diabetes test kit things. I asked why and she said, ‘Ever since Emma came to your house to play, she wants to play diabetes and I don’t know where to find one.’ For me that was heartwarming because it was part of their play and it was clearly accepted by her peer.”

Amy is also Co-director of the Don Scott Diabetes Family Camp, a one-day event sponsored by St. Luke’s for families with children who live with diabetes. “Oftentimes parents don’t understand everything that happens at camp. This is their chance to experience it,” she said. “We had several structured education activities, some for the parents and some peer-to-peer groups for the kids. Then we infused that with family team-building and different physical activities. There were many parents in tears at the end of the day, saying how much they had gained and what a fabulous resource it was connecting with other parents.”

In working with children living with diabetes, Amy believes it’s important to put the child first. “This is about making the diabetes fit the child, not making the child fit the diabetes,” she said. “Giving kids opportunities for choice and control is really important. For many kids with chronic diseases, this is a big issue. They can feel out of control because of their disease. With my daughter, sometimes I would have her draw a little dot on her finger exactly where she wanted me to test her blood sugar, so it wasn’t me choosing, it was her choosing.”

Amy offers an interesting perspective of approaching the camp experience from the psychological side. Over and over I’ve heard how empowering diabetes camps can be, and Camp Hodia appears to fit right in with that assessment. What has been your experience with diabetes camps? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below. My thanks to Amy for sharing her insights.

All the best,

Laura K.

Disclosure: Dr. Amy Walters received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.

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