May 6, 2012

Kids with Type 1 diabetes find community at camp

Alice Reynolds cried when she got the diagnosis: Her 9-year-old son, Karl, the youngest of four healthy boys, had Type 1 diabetes.

Alice Reynolds cried when she got the diagnosis: Her 9-year-old son, Karl, the youngest of four healthy boys, had Type 1 diabetes.

Reynolds, a nurse, knew how much their lives would change. This disease would mean special diets, constant monitoring and regular injections. Not to mention the heightened insecurities and a lifetime of feeling different.

But two years ago, Karl, now 12, went to a camp for diabetics – a week away from home that changed everything.

Camp Carolina Trails, an overnight camp in King, about 15 minutes outside Winston-Salem, is run by the American Diabetes Association. It couples experienced medical staff with the traditional camp activities of ropes courses, swimming, zip-lines and kayaking, for students in third to 11th grades.

Older teenagers go on overnight camping trips in Stone Mountain State Park, where they pitch tents, gather firewood, cook meals and roast marshmallows.

Since 2009, The Charlotte Observer’s Summer Camp Fund has sent hundreds of children from low-income families throughout the Carolinas to day and overnight camps, where they can celebrate the outdoors. This is the first year Camp Carolina Trails has been a Summer Camp Fund recipient.

Most campers come home with a more positive outlook and new skills, such as giving themselves insulin injections, Reynolds said.

None of Karl’s school peers has Type 1 diabetes, so they don’t understand when he has to stop running to check his blood sugar level and eat a snack, she said.

But at Camp Carolina Trails, Karl feels at home.

“There, diabetes becomes normal, not a weird, outcast, ‘I’m afraid of you, and I don’t understand’ thing,” Alice Reynolds said. “Karl didn’t feel alone anymore.”

Nearly all of the camp’s 35 counselors have Type 1 diabetes.

“A lot of times (the campers) can’t picture themselves next week or next month,” said Justin Thomas, the camp director and the ADA’s local associate program manager. “The kids who attend our camp are able to look at these counselors and say, ‘Wow, this person is in college. They’ve got a fantastic career. ...I see a healthy future for myself.’ ”

Thomas knows from experience. About 20 years ago, he started as a camper at Camp Carolina Trails, where he learned to control his diabetes and be a regular kid. If not for camp, Thomas said, “I don’t know what or where I would be today. … It was a life-changing experience for me.”

Camp also changed Karl Reynolds’s older brother Jaron. Jaron was away at college when Karl was diagnosed. He was so removed from the situation that he didn’t understand diabetes.

But last year, he volunteered as a camp counselor and was one of the few without diabetes. “He came home from that camp with a new respect for diabetes and what Karl has been through,” Alice Reynolds said. “Now he knows how to talk to Karl.”

There are ADA camps scattered across the country, all summer long. The North Carolina camp, which draws students from as far away as California, is open only June 10-16 because of the high operating costs.

Raising a child with diabetes can be a financial burden on families. Insulin and pump supplies are expensive, and a daily supply of glucose testing strips can cost more than a gallon of gas.

One week at Camp Carolina Trails costs $700 per camper, a subsidized rate, and many families rely on scholarships, Thomas said.

“We want them to know it’s OK, and it’s going to be all right, and they’re going to be able to do everything they want to do in their life,” Thomas said.

Reynolds agrees. “I want (Karl) to have as normal a childhood as he can,” she said. “I want him to know who he is and not just identify himself as a diabetic. This camp will encourage him, and he’ll hear from others how to deal with it and know he can do it.”

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