For most kids, the biggest worries when leaving for summer camp are getting homesick and finding creepy crawlies in the cabin.
But for a child with diabetes, the fears are far greater, if camp is even a possibility.
Every carbohydrate must be counted and blood checked several times a day. Insulin pumps and injections must be administered. Staff need to know how to handle emergencies.
Jordan Rice was 7 and had never even slept over at a friend’s house because of her Type 1 diabetes. Her mom and dad, Carole and Jim Rice, even checked her blood in the middle of the night to be sure she wasn’t in trouble.
But when Jordan was in second grade, the Rices heard about Camp Carolina Trails, a weeklong summer camp in the mountains near Winston-Salem run by the American Diabetes Association. The camp was designed solely for children with diabetes, with an almost entirely diabetic counselor staff and a huge medical staff that included 24-hour on-site doctors, nurses and diabetes health educators.
Jordan was one of the youngest kids at camp that summer, and when time came for the Rices to leave her, Jim and Carole cried. Jordan didn’t.
“It was wonderful, because I could relate to everyone,” said Jordan, now a 12-year-old about to embark on her sixth year at Camp Carolina Trails.
“It feels good to have other people know how awkward and painful it can feel – to know that you’re not alone,” she said. “Other people say they can understand, but they don’t really know what it’s like.”
This summer, the Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund will send seven children from low-income families in the Charlotte area to Camp Carolina Trails.
Thanks to the generosity of readers, as well as matching grants and corporate donations, more than 260 kids will attend 14 camps this summer through the Summer Camp Fund. This is the fund’s sixth year.
Jordan’s first summer at camp was so magical – days filled with horseback riding, swimming, hiking and arts and crafts – that she decided she needed to go back the next year. And the next.
The south Charlotte family (Jordan has a younger brother, 11-year-old Garrett) builds their summer schedule around the one week each year that Camp Carolina Trails is offered.
“It truly is her family that she gets to meet once a year, and she goes and just knows that they share a similar experience,” says Carole Rice. “They just enjoy each other’s company so much. It’s an unspoken and a spoken language that they all understand.”
Campers at Camp Carolina Trails range in age from 7 to 17, and tuition is $700 per camper.
The 190 campers are overseen by a staff of about 45 counselors – the vast majority with Type 1 diabetes, a dietary staff of 10 who oversee meals and nutrition, and a volunteer medical staff of about 30 that includes doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and certified diabetes educators.
Justin Thomas, mission delivery and community outreach manager for the American Diabetes Association in Raleigh, says that for some children, camp is the only place they interact with other diabetic kids and adults. Being the norm instead of the exception is a refreshing change, he says.
“So often they have a level of fear – they feel alone with their diabetes. There’s nobody they can really share that experience with,” Thomas says.
And witnessing how well their counselors are thriving in their 20s gives campers hope that they too can be active, healthy adults even with the disease.
“When it’s dinner time and the counselors tell you to sit down and check your blood sugar, they’re doing it, too,” Thomas said. “It takes away that invincibility that some counselors have. You think, ‘They’re human, just like me.’ That makes them stronger role models at the end of the day.”
Accomplishing diabetes care “firsts” is a huge deal at Camp Carolina Trails. Doctors, nurses and diabetes educators work to help kids accomplish goals in caring for themselves, such as giving themselves shots for the first time or preparing and inserting their insulin pump, which delivers a steady stream of insulin to the body.
Jordan still remembers the day she changed the location of her pump on her own for the first time, during her second summer at camp.
“I followed what they said, and the scariest part was putting it on my skin and pulling the trigger,” she said. When they announced the accomplishment later that day in the dining hall, “I got a standing ovation,” she said.
Instead of challenging cabin mates for the best-made bed, campers compete daily for the best blood sugar reading. “The person who wins gets a pat on the back and a congratulations,” Jordan laughs.
Linnet Steinman, head nurse at Camp Carolina Trails, first got involved with the camp after her youngest son, Jeremy, attended for the first time in 1997. She joined the staff in 1999 and hasn’t missed a summer yet. Both of her sons – Jeremy, now 25, and Geoffrey, 27, who was diagnosed with diabetes at age 17 – return each summer as counselors.
Every summer, Steinman sees the anguish of parents who are leaving their medically fragile children in the care of strangers for the first time, and remembers the worries she felt when doing the same with Jeremy.
“I tell parents, ‘These children are not going to get into trouble. The safety aspect of camp is amazing,’ ” said Steinman, of south Charlotte. “We are going to make sure they are never in need.”
A postive mental attitude
For Jordan, perhaps the best gift Camp Carolina Trails has given her is what the camp calls “PMA”: Positive Mental Attitude.
Camp, she says, has taught her that instead of being annoyed by questions and ignorant remarks about her disease, she can use the opportunity to educate others and turn a negative into a positive.
“It’s tough to be patient, but it helps that they know,” she says. “It’s easy to be unhappy because you’ve got this thing kind of holding you back, but they teach you to be open about it, and understanding.”
The last major event of every camp session is a Friday night dance, which ends in a rousing rendition of the song “Lean on Me.” Campers and counselors all join in, and “we just don’t want to leave,” Jordan says.
“Everyone ends up crying at one point or another,” she says. “Even the boys.”