When I posted about my personal diagnosis story, I wrote that the first thing my doctor told us after he dropped the “Big D” on us, was that my parents should send me to diabetes camp. That turned out to be the best single piece of advice we ever got about diabetes! Why was that such great advice, and what the heck is diabetes camp, you ask? Well, I will tell you!
Diabetes camp is, of course, summer camp just for children with diabetes! There are lots of different camps, of varying length and style all over the country. I was lucky enough to have been able to attend the BEST diabetes camp in the entire world! That camp was Camp Ho Mita Koda, located in Newbury, Ohio.
Camp Ho Mita Koda (or as we campers called it, “Camp Ho”) is one of the oldest residential camps for kids with diabetes in the U.S. (Read a full history of Camp Ho, here.) “Ho Mita Koda” means “Welcome My Friend” in the Sioux language. It was founded in 1929 by Dr. & Mrs John, who had a special place in their hearts for kids with diabetes. Back then, insulin was just barely made available, and not many people had access to it, so Dr. & Mrs. John created a place that those suffering kids could go where they could spend a few weeks having fun, being around others like them, and just being kids!
Camp Ho basically still serves that same function. When Dr. & Mrs. John first started it, they took about 6 kids to their summer cabin in Newbury, Ohio. Now the camp houses about 60 kids, ages 8-15, a session with multiple residential sessions a summer, plus a couple of day sessions for tiny kids and their parents. It has everything a normal camp has like arts & crafts, swimming pools, sand volleyball, basket ball/hockey courts, tennis courts, an archery range, a boating/water front program on the lake, a ropes course & climbing wall, a “great hall”, cabins for kids to stay in, places to have bonfires, totem poles, and a bath house. And it also has a few “unique” things too, like a medical “dispensary” and a bunch of statues to honor things like research dogs that were used to develop insulin and Fredrick Banting (the guy who figured out how to harness animal insulin for human use).
At Camp Ho, kids do all of the normal camp stuff like flag raising, camp songs, capture the flag, polar bear swims, nature hikes, and pulling pranks on other cabins, campers & counselors. At Camp Ho, there were also a few “special” things each session where the whole camp would leave the camp grounds and go for a long hike, or a long canoe trip, go roller skating, or go to a water park.
The only difference between Camp Ho and a regular summer camp was that in and among all of these normal camp activities, there was a lot of blood sugar testing, glucose tab eating to treat lows, and shot taking. But, at least when I was there, all of those “diabetic” type things were pretty second place to the actual having of FUN!
So, why was sending me to camp the best advice about diabetes my parents & I got? A few reasons:
1) Diabetes is hard work! For both the parents and the child! Sending your kid to camp for a few weeks gives the parents a break from the constant worry and vigilance of helping their child manage diabetes. It also gives the kid a break from constantly worrying about managing their own diabetes and how that would interfere with activities of daily living, because at camp, diabetes care is built right in to daily life.
2) Parents of diabetics are WAY overprotective. There, I said it! (Don’t be offended, I’m alive today and as healthy as I am because of overprotective parenting!) Diabetes camp is great for the kid, because parents of diabetic kids are SUPER overprotective. This is not a bad thing. They have to be. Kids are total morons sometimes, and their brains aren’t physically capable of reasoning about long-term consequences (seriously, those parts of your brain don’t finish forming until you’re in your early twenties!), so parents of diabetics are constantly saying “are you low?” “when was the last time you tested?” “did you take your insulin?” “what’s your blood sugar?” “go eat something!”, and the list goes on. At diabetes camp, the kids get a much needed break from that, and the parents get a break from having to say all those things!
3)Diabetic kids grow up way too fast. Any person who’s had a chronic illness of any kind since they were a kid (shout out to my super brave cousin, Mark!) knows that some amount of childhood is inherently lost. Diabetic kids often face near-death experiences when they are first diagnosed, and that can leave them feeling VERY different than the rest of their peer group. I remember going back to school after I was diagnosed, looking around at the other kids in my class, and thinking in my 11 year old brain, “None of the stupid things you guys are talking about matter! I almost died! Life matters! We could all die tomorrow!” And more stuff like that. It’s a lot for a little kid to deal with. Not to mention that the diabetic kid now has to be constantly responsible and vigilant about testing, eating and taking shots. Regular kid stuff and spontaneity go out the window. At camp, though, you don’t have to worry about all that stuff because there are staff members to worry about it all for you, and you can just concentrate on having FUN for once! And, the other kids have had to deal with a lot of the same shiz, so they know what it’s like, and you become instant friends.
4)Diabetic kids can be way too self conscious. It is hard having to be “different” when you are a kid. When you have diabetes, you do a lot of things differently than other kids. You can’t always eat what they eat, you sometimes have to take shots or medicine around your friends who think it’s creepy or gross, you sometimes have to eat before, during, or after gym class, just to name a few. It’s hard enough to go through adolescence just trying to fit in, let alone going through it with a big “diabetes” stamp on your forehead. It’s a big blow on the self-esteem, trust me. At diabetes camp, though, every other kid there is JUST LIKE YOU! It was probably the most freeing feeling I ever experienced as a kid. The barriers I would put up between myself & my friends at home, because I was too self conscious about having diabetes, weren’t there at all at diabetes camp and I developed some of the closest friendships I’d ever had as a child there. Also, it gave me a lot of self confidence to see the counselors (who were often Type 1 adults) living awesome, happy, successful lives. I would always get home from camp and feel much happier and much less self conscious for awhile.
I’m not sure if all kids who go to diabetes camp feel like this. Camp Ho Mita Koda was and still is a magical place. It was life changing for me, and I know it is life changing for the kids that attend it now. I suspect it is even a life changing place for staff members (Heather, you can chime in about this in the comments if you want!). This post could go on forever, because I have so many wonderful things to say about camp. I have so many friends whose names I’d like to mention here, and so many stories involving them all I’d like to recount, but there just isn’t space. Before I end, I would like to mention one very special person, who is close to EVERYone’s heart that is associated with Camp Ho, Rich Humphreys. Rich was the camp director for two decades, and inspired so many kids at camp to live life fully and with zeal! I will always remember him telling us to never let diabetes be an excuse not to do something you want to do, and I have tried to take that to heart!
So, all you current or future doctors out there, if you ever have to drop the “D-bomb” on a kid and their family, please make the second thing that comes out of your mouth “ . . . and send them to diabetes camp!”
Camp Ho is the only place that I want to be.
I love the open spaces, and the feeling that I’m free.
The fun I had and the friends I made, I will not forget,
And I can tell this summer’s gonna be the best one yet!