Back in August 1984, University of Florida grad student Mark Atkinson worked at a local diabetes summer camp as a counselor. His advisor, noted pediatric endocrinologist Noel Maclaren, made working there a condition of joining his lab. He arrived packing sunscreen and mosquito repellent, and left a few weeks later carrying a determination to make the early identification, prevention and cure of type 1 diabetes (T1D) his life’s work.
“When I arrived for the start of camp, it was like stepping into the Wizard of Oz,” says Dr. Atkinson, now a Ph.D. and head of the University of Florida’s Diabetes Institute as well as Executive Director of JDRF’s Network for Pancreatic Organ Donors with Diabetes (nPOD). “The little I knew beforehand about T1D went from black and white to Technicolor.” He says helping the campers as they managed their diabetes made him understand the disease in a way he hadn’t before. “It was overwhelming in terms of ‘Look what has to happen in order to live with this disease.’ It was eye-opening and I came back to school and said ‘I want to make a difference and I would love to do research in T1D.’”
Three decades later, from his vantage point as one of the world’s foremost T1D researchers, Dr. Atkinson remembers how primitive the camp’s blood-glucose management efforts were. Campers tested their blood sugar using a glucometer that took several minutes to provide a readout, ate boiled salt-free hot dogs, and injected insulin just twice a day. But he also remembers the many benefits the camp provided, both for the campers themselves and their families. “The best thing diabetes camps offer kids is the opportunity to say ‘I have diabetes. So what?,’” he says. “ ’I’m living life, it’s normal, and I’m not alone.’”
Terry Ackley, Executive Director of the Diabetes Education & Camping Association (DECA), says that while the food and diabetes management tools have improved since Dr. Atkinson’s time at camp, the core message hasn’t changed. “At diabetes camp, you’re not the only kid with T1D,” he says, “you’re the norm. It’s people without T1D who are unusual. ” Mr. Ackley, whose organization represents some 400 diabetes camps worldwide, says peer interaction and introduction to role models successfully living with T1D, including some high-profile athletes and entertainers, makes diabetes camps special. “We spend time empowering kids and giving them tools for success,” he says. “Our message is ‘You can do anything in life that you want.’”
Mr. Ackley says today’s diabetes camps are equipped to serve children at every level of T1D management ability. “We have seen everything you can imagine: six year olds who do their own shots and 16 year-olds who are totally dependent on their parents’ care. We help them grow within their capabilities.” He notes that campers’ safety is the first concern. The camps represented by his organization do strict background checks on staff and volunteers, and they all have medical teams, including doctors, nurses and dieticians on site to attend to the campers’ health. Trained counselors, many of whom are people with T1D themselves, help the campers with their daily blood-glucose management routines, including blood-glucose testing a minimum of six to seven times daily.
There are many different types of diabetes camp experiences, including summer sleep-away camps, day camps, weekend camps, family camps and camps with school vacation programs. Mr. Ackley recommends that parents who are thinking of sending their children to a diabetes camp should talk to the camp’s executive director to find out about the programs and to other parents about their experiences. He notes that financial assistance is often available to make sure that kids who want to attend camp can do so. He says that while the deadlines are tight, it’s not too late for those who want to attend a program this summer, and suggests parents visit the DECA website at https://www.diabetescamps.org/ to find camps in their area.