Summer camp is meant to be a fun and freeing experience. But for children living with type 1 diabetes, navigating that rite of passage can be daunting and isolating—especially when they’re new to managing the condition.
Unless, that is, they’re at a sleepaway camp supported by the Johnson & Johnson Diabetes Care Companies (JJDCC), where they can canoe, hike and make cabin BFFs just like any other kid.
Since 2001, Johnson & Johnson has provided lifesaving diabetes management supplies to more than 150 camps around the world that support children who are coping with type 1 diabetes.
In 2017 alone, JJDCC has pledged to provide $2.5 million to support diabetes summer camp programs, so participants can have access to LifeScan blood glucose meters, glucose test strips and pump supplies—and take part in everything from Color Wars to campfire sing-alongs while safely keeping tabs on their blood glucose levels and overall health.
But don’t just take our word for it. These teens in Mexico, Russia and the U.S. share what it’s like to spend part of the summer at diabetes camp.
Katharine Bender, 15, Mercer County, N.J.
When 13-year-old Katharine Bender arrived for her first week at Camp Freedom, sponsored by the American Diabetes Association, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, she didn’t know what to expect—but she instantly felt at home.
Spending time with the horses on the property, which she "loved," was just one of the special perks of the camp for the competitive rider.
Looking back, Bender, now 15, is bursting with tales of the enriching experiences she’s had over the past two summers, including learning to fish, tubing and, especially, whizzing across the water on a zip line. “I loved the feeling of going across the river and not touching the ground,” she says. “They really want you to have fun there.”
She’s also grateful for some of the special activities that are offered for children like herself, such as lessons on how to strategically plan meals and count carbohydrates to better manage blood glucose levels—a skill that Bender now practices at home.
There's one other invaluable beneficial perk of the program: peer-to-peer support. Bender, who was diagnosed at age 6, says that it can be isolating to grow up with the condition. “A lot of people who aren’t type 1 don’t understand how stressful it can be day-to-day," she explains. "At camp, we can talk about that.”
Yulia Selivanova, 15, Naberezhnye Chelny, Russia
Yulia Selivanova had to travel for days from her hometown to get to Ultracamp in Anapa, Russia. But the long journey was worth it.
For Selivanova, three weeks at Ultracamp in 2014 and 2015 taught her how to better manage her diabetes on her own, including dealing with episodes of hypoglycemia. The personal attention was key, she recalls. “If you didn’t understand how to do something or work the equipment, the counselors came over to explain it one-on-one,” says the eighth-grader, who still keeps in touch with friends she met at camp.
At Ultracamp, the goal is to blend a traditional camp experience with a non-intimidating way to teach children how to cope with the chronic condition. As one of 30 campers, Selivanova did everything from take photography courses to play her favorite outdoor game, Kazaki-razboyniki, a version of hide-and-seek.
For many participants, the help doesn’t end once the kids head home: Pediatric endocrinologists are on hand throughout the school year to answer any questions the campers might have.
And for many participants, the help doesn’t end once the kids head home: Pediatric endocrinologists are on hand throughout the school year to answer any questions the campers might have. “It was cool to be able to write to them and get advice,” Selivanova says.
A camp visit from Anastasia Belskaya, a winner of the Miss United Continents Russia pageant who lives with type 1 diabetes, also provided much-needed inspiration. “After meeting her," Selivanova says, "I realized that we are special people who are equipped to deal with any challenges that come our way.”
César Alexis Ocegueda Carbajal, 16, Guadalajara, Mexico
César Alexis Ocegueda Carbajal has never known a life without type 1 diabetes—at least not one he can remember. The Guadalajara native was diagnosed at the age of 2.
But what does stand out in his memory is the first time he attended a camp for children with type 1 diabetes when he was just 5 years old. He's since spent summers at more than half of the 13 camps throughout Mexico run by associations affiliated with the Mexican Diabetes Federation. Like their counterparts around the world, each camp aims to foster kids’ medical understanding and self-care habits through classes on topics like glucose management and proper exercise.
But that’s not what Carbajal remembers most. “What’s so special about these camps is that you get to live and share experiences with people who face the same issues you do,” he explains.
Little wonder, then, that he's signed up eight times, enabling him to bond with new friends on the soccer field, at the dinner table and everywhere in between.
“I want to say to parents of kids with diabetes—and to kids who live with diabetes—that they should make the leap and experience what these camps offer,” Carbajal says. “Education about diabetes is the best treatment you can get.”