The challenges for families with a child who has type 1 diabetes is many-fold. From the day-to-day challenges of staying on top of a child's blood sugar and food intake, to the many social challenges a child with T1D has to endure is very far-reaching. The experiences of a child with T1D are anything but normal. However, there are places where children with T1D can go where they can feel both safe and very normal, and that is at a type 1 diabetes summer camp. Here in the US, there are over 200 such camps that serve over 20,000 kids![i]
These camps are supported on a higher level by the Diabetes Education & Camping Association (DECA), who work with 400 programs around the world to help these camps provide safe and fun experiences for these children.
DECA, along with the American Diabetes Association (ADA), has great resources for helping parents find the right camp for their child, and to prepare their child for the summer camp experience.
"Diabetes camp is a positive step toward independence for parents and children alike," says DECA on its website. "Parents can relax knowing their children are safely cared for and are having a blast with new friends."[ii]
The summer camp concept is nothing new for children with diabetes. The first camp – Camp Ho Mita Koda in Newbury, Ohio – was founded in 1929 by Dr. Henry John, who was a pioneer in the use of insulin.
The Camp Finder page on the DECA website enables parents to find camps close to where they live, and it also has helpful descriptions on the history, activities, and mission of each camp, as well as the age groups that they serve. There are also links to each camp’s website.
All of the type 1 diabetes summer camps offer unique benefits.
- Many camp counselors live with type 1 diabetes.
Numerous counselors are former campers as well, so they bond with the kids on a personal level. All staff members go through background checks and participate in diabetes-specific training to ensure a safe environment.
- Children are given diabetes-specific education to learn better self-care.
- Camp Coral in Coral Springs, Florida, offers training on insulin management, glucose monitoring and nutritional guidance under the direction of medical professionals from the Brown Medical System. They even have "diabetes games" that help children feel normal and have fun with their diabetes management regimen.
- The Barton Camps in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New York launched their Health Stars program in 2011 that provides a fun way for campers to reinforce and learn good habits they can retain and utilize when they return home.
- Children are taught how to effectively play high-intensity sports while managing their diabetes.
The Chris Dudley Basketball Camp in Vernonia, Oregon teaches youths ages 10-17 to play a vigorous sport while managing their diabetes. More traditional camps usually offer intensive sports and outdoor activities too, but this camp in particular works with kids who play high-intensity sports.
- Each child has a chance to make friends and build a support network with others.
The parent testimonials from the ADA’s Camp Montana in Fishtail speak of kids missing their bunk-mates, wanting to become counselors when they are old enough, and milestones in managing their diabetes more independently, thanks to the peer, counselor, and medical staff support. Several of the camps also have a newsletter that keeps campers, and their parents engaged year-round, and most of them have very high rates of return campers!
- Everyone has loads of fun!
Camp Ho Mita Koda offers more than 30 activities, such as outdoor endeavors like hiking & ropes courses, arts & crafts, performing arts, team & individual sports, water sports, competitive activities like paintball, as well as other pursuits like fishing, gardening, and photography. There are no shortage of fun things to do!
For families who need financial assistance, there are programs available specific to each camp. Camp Ho Mita Koda offers "camperships" that enable children from financially stressed homes to enjoy the camp experience. DECA also offers opportunities for those who want to help, including financial contributions, volunteering, and membership.
For those of you with family members and friends whose children have been recently diagnosed, contributing to a summer camp experience is a wonderful gift idea. If nothing else, I hope you will join me in spreading awareness about these wonderful camps and the lifetime of hope and happy memories they provide to children with type 1 and their families.