Lake Norman & Mooresville

Girl Scout Gold project helps tackle Type 1 diabetes

McKenzie Jones implemented a diabetes awareness, screening and treatment program in the rural highlands of Guatemala.
McKenzie Jones implemented a diabetes awareness, screening and treatment program in the rural highlands of Guatemala.

When McKenzie Jones learned that people in rural Guatemala don’t receive proper medical attention for Type 1 Diabetes, she implemented an awareness, screening and treatment program in the country’s rural highlands.

Jones was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 5 years old.

Her mother, Rebecca, had been doing mission work in Guatemala since 2011. McKenzie was never able to go because the rural areas weren’t equipped to treat McKenzie if she got ill.

“It got me wondering, ‘what about kids in Guatemala with Type 1 diabetes?’” said McKenzie, who recently turned 17.

For Type 1 diabetics, the body produces little to no insulin, a hormone that controls how much sugar is in the blood. When McKenzie’s blood sugar was tested at age five, her blood sugar level exceeded 500. A healthy blood sugar level is 80-120.

McKenzie spent three days in the hospital.

Untreated diabetes damages blood vessels and nerves, which affects eyesight, heart and kidney function, and can cause numbness in the hands and feet. McKenzie was concerned that people in Guatemala were unknowingly living with the disease.

Going for Gold

McKenzie has never let diabetes hold her back.

She plays tennis in Denver at North Lincoln High School – No. 1 singles and doubles. Her mother monitors her blood sugar from the sidelines using a phone app, and sometimes her coach has to call timeout so McKenzie can eat a healthy, sugary snack.

McKenzie also has been a Girl Scout since kindergarten.

In 2010, she earned her Bronze Award for creating recycled artwork to promote environmentalism in the Denver community. In 2013, she earned her Silver Award by developing an after-school enrichment program called Fun Fridays at Amy’s House, a shelter for abused women.

About a year and a half ago, McKenzie began working toward her Gold Award, the highest achievement a Girl Scout can receive. When thinking about what issue she should tackle, McKenzie drew inspiration from her own experience with diabetes.

“Kenzie’s taken what God’s given her and used it,” Rebecca Jones said.

Her family decided, since McKenzie would be working with doctors who have the resources to treat diabetes, she could go to Guatemala. McKenzie planned for months, writing proposals, collecting donations and medical supplies and corresponding with doctors in Guatemala.

McKenzie and her team of volunteers arrived in Guatemala on July 4.

Throughout their five-day trip, they tested 478 individuals in two villages -- El Sitan and Tululche -- for diabetes. In El Sitan, they screened at a primary school and in Tululche, at Mercy Clinic, at Casa Angelina orphanage.

The screening involved taking an individuals’ height, weight, the last time they ate and their blood sugar. To test blood sugar, volunteers pricked fingers and collected a drop of blood on a test strip. A blood sugar meter then analyzed the strip and the blood sugar level was recorded.

If blood sugar levels were especially high or low, McKenzie referred them to Mercy Clinic.

McKenzie said she doesn’t speak much Spanish, but she prepared enough literature in Spanish to help people understand the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes. In addition, there were translators.

“(Spanish was) all the kids spoke at that point,” she said. “But they were so welcoming despite the language barrier.”

McKenzie said it was important to incorporate her Christian faith into her project. Once finished with the screening, the kids were given small stuffed animals and bracelets that explained the principles of Christianity. Each elastic bracelet had six colored beads that corresponded to a passage from the Bible.

The results

McKenzie and her team didn’t find any new cases of Type 1 diabetes. But they found three people with Type 2 diabetes and four with abnormally low blood sugar, also known as hypoglycemia.

McKenzie said one seven-year-old girl had a blood sugar level of 59, which indicates that she has hypoglycemia. A translator explained to the girl about her low blood sugar and she began crying. She said whenever she got light-headed and shaky, she thought she had done something wrong.

“She was in trouble because it affected her schoolwork and how she behaved,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie said this experience helped her realize the how her project had a positive impact.

“(The girl) and her mom came to the clinic and talked to the doctor,” she said. “Just that they understand that when she’s shaky she needs to eat a healthy and sugary snack and that she doesn’t have to live like that was a big deal for her family.”

McKenzie said at the end of their trip they were asked to return and screen about 1,500 students for diabetes at four other schools. Nothing is set, but she said she hopes she can go.

“It’s definitely in my mind to go down and to take this program farther in rural Guatemala,” she said.

Jane Little: 704-358-5336; @janelittle26