Summer camp is a great time for kids to get a break from school – and truth be told, from their families. It’s a chance to enjoy swimming, arts and crafts, and nightly campfires.
And while they do all of that and much more at Camp Surefire in West Greenwich, the 80 kids who go there every summer also continually monitor what they eat and test their blood sugar levels throughout the day. That’s because every camper has type 1 diabetes, what used to be called juvenile diabetes. For some of the campers here, it’s all they’ve ever known.
“These kids come in here and they look around and they know that everybody is in the same boat,” said Dr. Gregory Fox, a pediatrician who has been the medical director for 13 of the camp’s 15-year existence. “Nobody is embarrassed about anything. Their meters come out, their insulin shots, they don’t really care. It’s really fantastic.”
They call it Camp 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 they 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.
“Kids don’t just show up with their backpacks and start for the session,” Dr. Fox said. “They have all the medical supplies. We have medical volunteers to recruit. We have nurses and nutritionists.”
For an outsider, it doesn’t take long to see that diabetes is a 24/7 condition that requires a lot of attention.
“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. If kids with diabetes 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,” Dr. Fox said.
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 a campwide capture-the-flag game on a hot day early in the week.
Many of the campers have been coming here for years, some now moving into leadership positions.
“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,” said Isabella Channel, who was a Leader in Training this year. “I feel normal here.”
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 said 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 East Greenwich and now lives in Pittsburgh. Baker, the camp’s program director, is one of the few who does not have diabetes.
“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,” said Baker. “I think a lot of people … 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.”
Dr. 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.
Dr. Fox says social media has helped connect the kids after camp ends, providing a support network throughout the school year.
“Part of what we’re looking to do is create relationships, because a lot of times these kids do feel like they’re alone,” Dr. Fox said. “But if they make one friend at camp who they can call when things are not going right or they’ve had a bad day, if they have just that one person who gets it that they can call, then we’ve really done our job.”
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