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Parenting: Growing in Good Health

Gone Fishin': Diabetes Camps for Kids

By Gary Gilles

"After 38 years with diabetes I am still without disabling symptoms. I attribute this to my mother's disciplined ways and my years at diabetes camp. Without these, I doubt I would be alive today."

"I have vivid memories of a lush pine grove with rolling hills of green grass surrounding the property," says Andrea Ross, a 40-year-old who spent nine summers at the Clara Barton Diabetes Summer Camp in North Oxford, Mass. "It changed my life. After 38 years with diabetes I am still without disabling symptoms. I attribute this to my mother's disciplined ways and my years at diabetes camp. Without these, I doubt I would be alive today."

As the number of children developing diabetes skyrockets, many parents are seeking out camps that specifically cater to kids with diabetes.

"Most parents are interested in these camps because they want their children to meet other kids with diabetes and also to learn as much as they can about how to manage it," says Zula Walters, executive director of the Diabetes Camping Association.

And today, there are dozens of camps to choose from. Since the first was founded shortly after the discovery of insulin in 1925, diabetes camps have opened throughout the world serving approximately 15-20,000 campers each summer. Some are week-long day camps that cater to younger children. Others offer residential settings with sessions ranging from one to three weeks.

Camping out

Whether they stay for the day or overnight, for many campers meeting other kids like them helps normalize the experience of having diabetes.

"As children meet others with diabetes they don't feel as 'different' or alone," Walters explains. "For some, it is the first time they have ever met another person with diabetes."

According to Erin Austin, age 15, the best part of camp has been making new friends.

"I felt afraid to go my first year," she remembers. "But once I got there I realized everyone had diabetes and I didn't feel different like I do in other places. I have learned so many important things at camp and have had so much fun, but the most meaningful part has been meeting such great people."

The ties that bind

For some parents, the decision to send their children to camp is a difficult one. At first, Brenda, mother of 9-year-old Megan, was hesitant to let her daughter go. But once she did, she was happy with the results.

"Megan met some good friends, had a great time and came away from camp with a much better understanding of her diabetes," says Brenda.

And, Brenda explains, Megan wasn't the only one who learned something from her time away. "I learned that she wasn't going to break if I wasn't by her side all the time. She became a kid again."

Despite all the benefits camp seems to provide, some parents find it hard to let go. Mary, mother of 11-year-old Alissa, is still hesitant to send her daughter. "I know the camps are run by professionals but I am afraid to turn all of the diabetes responsibilities for my daughter over to people I don't know."

According to experts, however, these parents don't have much to worry about. Most of the camps insist on having low child to medical professional ratio.

This might just explain the ever-growing waiting lists.

According to Sue Aspy, Program Director for the American Diabetes Association in Chicago, the camps she oversees "have no more than ten children to every nurse or doctor at camp. As we can recruit professionals to volunteer their time, we open up more spaces for campers. This is crucial for adequate supervision of the children and it also assures the parents that their children are well attended to."

For diabetes camp staff members, assuaging parental fears is just a normal part of the process.

"Parental fear is quite common," says Apsy, "and it is especially common with conscientious parents who expend great energy trying to do all they can for their child. We try to teach parents, especially parents of newly diagnosed children, that their son or daughter is first and foremost a child and secondarily a child with diabetes.

Into the woods

By all accounts, diabetes camp not only helps children learn more about managing their diabetes responsibly, it also gives children the chance to be kids.

As Angel, 17, sees it, her five summers at diabetes camp helped her strike a balance.

"I was so wrapped up in testing my blood and giving myself shots that I needed to have some fun," she explains. "At camp I got to ride horses and mountain bikes, climb a ropes course, canoe, sail and tons more. My time at camp has made all the difference in me being a well-balanced and adjusted kid with diabetes."

And now, as a camp counselor, Angel is doing her part to help other kids get that same chance.

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