By Merrick Mendenhall
I first heard about JDRF through the JDRF walks. I was in middle school and had been struggling to find ways to accept my T1D, while at the same time sharing my experience with my friends and family. Not an easy task. My friends and family were eager to be involved and understand my T1D so they could better support me, but I myself was unsure about my own understanding of my T1D and my relationship to it. Did I want it to be a positive thing in my life? A burden? Something to be angry at? I didn’t have the answers, and therefore didn’t know how to include others in my T1D experience.
Hearing about the JDRF walk in Vermont, made me excited and hopeful. Here was an opportunity to ignore all those itching questions and simply offer up a way for those closest to me to be involved in my T1D. My friends, who for years had been trying to understand my T1D better, finally had an opportunity to be involved in that part of my life. We fundraised together, had t-shirt making parties, and made big posters in preparation for the little Vermont walk hosted at a local high school. I felt more connected to my friends than ever before as we all entered the walk together, united in our efforts to find a cure for T1D.
I participated in two more walks, bringing in more people each year. I looked forward to the chance at introducing new people to the supportive environment around the walks. They allowed me to take a breath, and really own my T1D, own the fact that I was different, but that all these people loved and supported me because of that difference. After the walks, I began opening up to my non-T1D friends about some of the everyday struggles that came with it, and some of the reasons I was thankful for T1D as well. My friends soon started feeling more comfortable around my T1D, and learned what questions were appropriate to ask, learned what good and bad blood glucose numbers looked like, even learned my diagnosis date and began celebrating with me each year to commemorate the day T1D entered our lives.
As I entered college I began to focus on becoming a camp counselor for kids with T1D, and on navigating college with a chronic illness. I received emails about the big JDRF walk in Boston, but didn’t consider joining because I liked my little Vermont walk at that local high school where I recognized many of the faces. I liked that I could see how many more people there were just like me in my little home state. I liked the familiarity of it. Soon I would realize that familiarity is everywhere in the national JDRF community.
Sophomore year, a friend from high school who had walked with me in Vermont, reached out and said I should apply to the JDRF headquarters in D.C. for an internship. He had interned for them the year before and had been inspired by all the hard work and advocacy that goes into the JDRF community nation-wide. I applied on a whim, thinking it would be an exciting opportunity but not expecting to get an offer. When they called me back for an interview, I started planning for my summer in D.C.
My first day at JDRF, I left about an hour early, making sure I would have enough time to figure out the Metro, and eventually find my way to K Street where I would then have to navigate the huge office building that JDRF Advocacy was located in. I arrived early and nervous, unsure of what to expect. I was greeted by the other intern, who had also arrived early, and we waited awkwardly in the tiny lobby for our new boss to arrive. What followed next was a blur of introductions, job explanations, office tours, and many questions about our own T1D experience, and interest in JDRF. Paperwork was filled out, lunch was had, then we were let home early so we could rest and start the real work the next day. I left the office feeling ecstatic – I had completed my first day as a JDRF Advocacy Intern.
From there I participated in projects ranging from listening in on a presentation about the newest T1D technology, to going to meetings with members of the Senate and House of Representatives about the importance of supporting diabetes research. I went to Senate hearings where I got to see Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders ask questions about funding for healthcare, I spoke with local JDRF groups who came from all over the country to meet on Capitol Hill and advocate for diabetes research, and I got to spend my entire summer working with other Type 1 Diabetics like myself.
This entire experience was made possible and inspired by those first summers attending the JDRF Vermont walks. Those first summers spent learning how to fundraise, raise awareness, and effectively tell my story, led me to one of my most exciting and fulfilling college experiences. JDRF opened my eyes to the interconnected world of T1D and all the advocates who work full and part time towards the support of Type 1 Diabetics around the country. Most importantly, JDRF showed me what it means to be a part of a large community working towards something bigger than the individual, bigger than the little local familiar walks, bigger than advocating at the federal level. JDRF showed me that within our national T1D community, we are working to support those in need and find a cure for T1D’s across the country and the world.
As I look ahead and try to imagine life moving beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has impacted so many people in the JDRF community, I am aware that there are many struggles we will face. Between trying to support our own little T1D community, as well as supporting the many other important minority communities that COVID-19 has affected, things seem impossible moving forward. What makes the JDRF and the T1D community strong, is its ability to withstand the impossible. Every day we live with the impossibility of Type 1 Diabetes. Every day we must be strong and support each other in order to overcome Type 1 Diabetes. This support will not cease in the face of the pandemic as long as the JDRF community continues to grow and evolve in the effort to make life a little easier for those living with T1D, and to one day find a cure.
About the Author
Merrick Mendenhall grew up in Burlington, Vermont and has had type 1 diabetes for 15 years. She studied writing in college and she graduated from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA in May of 2020. She will be beginning a career in teaching after being inspired by her work in the T1D youth community.