A Camp Like No Other
Every summer millions of kids head off to camp, getting a break from school and family. But what about children with diabetes, which requires continual medical support? Camp Surefire - now in its 15th season - provides a safe and fun environment for 80 diabetic campers, and a respite for their parents. As Jim Hummel found, it's a place where the campers don't have to explain to anyone what they're going through.
Lots of Swimming.
Trying new things like karate.
Arts and Crafts on a rainy day.
Or a rousing game of capture the flag.
And while they do all of that and much more at Camp Surefire - the kids here also continually monitor what they eat and test their blood sugar levels. That's because every camper here has Type 1 diabetes - what used to be called juvenile diabetes. For some of the campers here, it's all they've ever known.
Fox: ``These kids come in here and they look around and they know that everybody is in the same boat. Nobody is embarrassed about anything. Their meters come out, their insulin shots, they don't really care. It's really fantastic.''
Dr. Gregory Fox was an endocrine fellow at Hasbro Children's Hospital 13 years ago when he heard they needed a medical director at the camp, now in its 15th season. They call it Surefire because early on somebody said the camp was a surefire way to learn about diabetes. The families pay on a sliding scale, with donations and grants helping to subsidize the costs.
It started out as a single weekend with 25 kids at a campsite in Coventry and has since expanded to five days. Three years ago they moved to URI's Alton Jones campus in West Greenwich - and now have 80 campers, 25 counselors, a group of URI pharmacy students and a medical team of about a dozen that provides around-the-clock coverage. It's a year-round planning process to prepare .
Fox: Kids just don't show up with their backpacks and start for the session. They have all the medical supplies, so we work with medical supply companies insulin companies. We have medical volunteers to recruit . We have nurses and nutritionists. We have a full nutrition menu that we need to incorporate not only around diabetes, but more than 10 percent of our kids have Celiac disease as well.''
For an outsider it doesn't take long to see that discover diabetes is a 24/7 condition that requires a lot of attention.
Fox: ``Something that you and I take for granted - we eat something, our pancreas does the job, our blood sugar stays in a very, very tight range; kids with diabetes if they eat too much their blood sugar is going to go very, very high and that can make them sick, or if they take their insulin and don't eat enough their blood sugar is going to go very, very low.''
That's why a good portion of each day revolves around meals. All the carbs are listed, portions carefully measured and everything counted and calculated. Blood glucose testing is built into the schedule four times a day and always available as needed, as it was during the capture the flag game on a hot day early in the week.
Fox: ``It's a constant balancing act so really these kids every time they eat something they need to think about it and they need give themselves insulin for it, whether they're on a pump or getting injections - there's no free meals ever.''
Fox holds a session with the younger kids called Diabetes Fishbowl, where they can ask any question they want about diabetes, writing it down and submitting it anonymously.
Fox: ``My general philosophy is: the more you know about your diabetes, the better you can care for your diabetes. Education happens at every single level. A lot of it is just by being here and so yes, the kids at home are living that life. But everybody does it in a different way. And so you have some people who are very intense - very focused on counting every carbohydrate and checking their blood sugar many times a day and you have some kids that aren't doing as well and their families don't give them as much support and when they come here everybody is on a level playing field.''
Many of the campers have been coming here for years, some now moving into leadership positions.
Hummel: ``What is it like coming to a place where you don't have to explain diabetes to anyone?''
Isabella Channell: ``I love it here because nobody stares at you funny when you're testing your blood sugar, or asking you questions about what's a pump. I feel normal here.''
Brooke Cairrao: ``Everybody is being like normal kids and not acting like oh we have to be so scared make sure nobody sees we have diabetes. Be free, we can do everything that a normal kid does and we just have fun.''
Fox: ``And they vent too. They vent about those kids at school that are picking on them or giving them grief about checking their blood sugars. So they have an opportunity to get together and bond.''
This year the campers also got a visit from Kris Freeman, an Olympic cross country skier who has diabetes. He talked about not letting it get in the way of anything the kids want to do. The slogan on his shirt says it all: `` Diabetes doesn't go away at camp - it just doesn't stand in the way.''
Most of the kids here are from Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, but some come from as far away as New York.
Dustin Baker grew up in from East Greenwich and now lives in Pittsburgh. Baker, the camp's program director, is one of the few who does not have diabetes.
Baker: ``And immediately what hit me was the respect I have for them for managing it and doing everything they have to do to keep it under control. I think a lot of people who don't have diabetes hear about it and go okay - don't think about all the things they have to do at mealtime to keep their blood sugars in check or what they have to do before they go to sleep.''
Fox says as much as the kids enjoy camp - it is equally important for their parents, many of whom have spent years getting up in the middle of the night to monitor their child's blood glucose levels. Fox and the medical staff rotate overnight coverage at camp.
Fox: And that's one of our primary missions: For parents to maybe go away for the weekend or go do something and not have to worry. Maybe get a good night's sleep all the way through the night. This is a respite for (the parents). Because a lot of our kids don't get to go to sleepovers. If they don't have friends whose parents are comfortable - or their relatives don't feel comfortable taking them. So these parents are living it 24 hours a day. I've talked to parents all the time who have woken up every night at 2 a.m. for the past 10 years and their kid's a teenager. And they're just so used to it that that's what they do, because they don't want anything bad to happen to their child.''
Fox says social media has helped connect the kids after camp ends, providing a support network throughout the school year.
Fox: ``That's all part of what we're looking to do is create relationships, because a lot of times these kids do feel like they're alone. But if they make one friend at camp that they can call when things are not going right or they've had a bad day - if they have just that one person that gets it that they can call, then we've really done our job.''
In West Greenwich, Jim Hummel for the Rhode Island Spotlight.