Diabetes camp: It truly saved us. Could it save you (yes, even adults)

April 25, 2011By 13 Comments

It was a very long time ago – 1998 to be exact – when I first dropped my then tiny little girl off at diabetes camp. But I remember it well.

The first year, I was so nervous I hung around “getting things ready” for hours on end. I actually considered hiding behind a tree for the two weeks so I could pop out every once and a while and say “Are you low?”

I remember the second year just as clearly. As we got close to camp I simply slowed the car down, shoved my daughter out the door and pealed off, tires (and me) squealing as we headed toward freedom.

Okay, so I’m exaggerating again. But I do really mean it when I say that discovering diabetes camp – and early into our lives with diabetes – was one of the best things that happened to all of us.

We are lucky in a couple of ways. First, one of what I feel is the best diabetes camps in the world – The Clara Barton Camp for Girls With Diabetes (and it’s twin “brother” Camp Joslin for Boys) — happens to be right here in my home state. And second, one of the candy stripers (do we still call them that?) at Children’s when Lauren was diagnosed had Type 1 and told us right off: “You just have to send her to camp.”

Lauren was only six at the time. (You can see her above in the pink shirt and orange life preserver with her beloved Shelley. Extra points if YOU are in this photo). But we went out and visited on one of their open house days and it just clicked. That summer, before she could read well and way before cell phones were commonplace, I dropped my tiny girl off at overnight camp.

She came home transformed. Pumps were not commonplace in little kids back then, but three of the counselors had them. Lauren insisted we research, and a few months later she was the first young girl on a pump in the Boston area. She learned new sites to gives herself shots on. She learned cool songs. She climbed a real mountain. She canoed. She sang “Barges” (just like I did at my Camp Fire Girl camp in the Boundary waters in the 1960’s). But most of all, she lived an exciting and adventurous time with diabetes and without her mother. (And did I mention her mother took that time to relax and recharge? Sublime.) It was transformational.

Camp became a very big part of our lives. Lauren went to every “wacky weekend” (winter weekends when you can bring along a sibling or good friend who does not have diabetes). Lauren became one of the young speakers who would speak about camp at places. A few years into it, I had picked her up after the two weeks and brought her home.

Now, I had a bedtime tradition with both my girls that I loved. We’d read a story, then I’d tell them a story about a day in my life at their age. They had favorites they’d want repeated sometimes; other times I’d dig into my mind and share with them my life as a little kid. We all loved it.

So you can imagine how my heart warmed when, as I tucked my daughter into bed that first night home, she got a bit weepy and said, “Mom. I just miss our talks so much!”

“Oh honey, don’t cry,” I answered. “You’re home now.”

She sat up straight. “No mom, not you. I mean my camp friends. My talks with them. We always talk after we are in bed. And no offense Mom; but I can talk to them in a way I cannot talk to anyone else. Not even you.”

I know. But actually, I was thrilled.

Since we were lucky enough to discover camp right off, I always find it a bit surprising that some families just don’t warm up to the idea. I mean first of all, at least at our camp, safety is not even an issue. With a nurse in every cabin, counselors who either have Type 1 or are well trained in it sleeping right with the kids and an endo on site and on call 24/7, I often joke that Lauren should live at camp and visit me for two weeks each year.

Second, while I often hear the “I don’t want my kid to be around sick kids,” that’s quite the opposite of what diabetes camp is all about. Because once you arrive at a place where everyone is the same as you, diabetes simply becomes beside the point. And do they teach the kids about life with diabetes? Well, yeah, but not with a chalkboard. It’s just kind of seamlessly blended into what they do each day. Like the play they put on one year: The Wizard of Oz. Only, like all the girls there, Dorothy has diabetes. And the monkeys, instead of swooping on her, throw candy at her. Which she eats. And then has to pee (and realizes she’s high and needs some ‘slin for the candy). Seamless, I tell you.

I scratch my head when I read the ads for caretakers to go stay at a  non-diabetes based camp with a child with diabetes. I get it if a camp has been in the family a long time. No one wants to deny their child anything, and nor should they if they can avoid it. But diabetes camp – at least ours – is so fantastic of a camp in a “regular camp” kind of way that there are kids without diabetes jealous and wish they could go there. There’s even a name for them: Wannabetics. I think: why not start a new tradition? One that will do so much for all of your family?

My daughter is grown now and camp is a memory. She tried the counseling thing but at her age, it just did not work for her. I hope she goes back some day. In the meantime, that got me thinking.

Thinking about the Adult Type 1 community; so vocal as of late about their needs. It seems to me they are looking for a way to feel connected, both with one another and with the diabetes world. I wonder: what if camp had an adult with Type 1 session?

For a week (or even a long weekend given the time constraints of adults) Adults with Type 1 could check in and have a nurse and endo around for them. They’d do all kinds of fun things like hiking and boating and singing around the campfire. They’d bond. They could even play “Cities.” (Bonus points for any commenters who have played that game).

I’m just guessing here: but might there be some loved ones and dear friends of adults with Type 1 who would drive them there, slow down, shove them out the door and then peal off? And wouldn’t the experience give adults with Type 1 a feeling of community, support and care?

What do you think?

I’m not being overdramatic when I say this: Back in 1998, Clara Barton Camp saved us. And I’ll be forever thankful for that.

 I’d love to hear from campers, parents and even those who are resisting camp. What worked for you? Or, why are you not for it?

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Comments (13)

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  1. Maureen says:

    Samantha was diagnosed at 12 and LOVED Clara Barton and now is a counselor at Joslin boys camp. When her brother Justin was diagnosed with Type 1 last August at the age of 20 one of Sam’s first comments was: “Oh it’s sad he missed the experience of diabetes camp”.

  2. Katie says:

    Really, are we actually the same person?

    Our son’s first endo was the resident endo at Bearskin meadow Camp, and she suggested the day he was diagnosed that we send him to camp that summer. He was 10. Off he went, and I was so relieved that he could spend time away from us without our worrying. In his case, his very own doctor was there. He really enjoyed it. It’s a co-ed camp, and I think it is the girls who make those lasting memories of night-time chats. Boys come home with new and gross ways to give shots through their jeans or tees. But they come home recharged and healthy. One year his whole 10 days was a back-packing trip.

    Because I knew he’d spent many summers at high-altitude, and more than once been on a back-packing trip at camp, I was able to more or less calmly watch him leave with two non-diabetic friends for a 4 day trip this summer. Because of camp, I think we were always able to see that his life was his own, and not ours.

    Like you, I wonder at the ads and requests for full-time minders for kids with D who want to go to camp.

    My son also tried being a camp counselor. It wasn’t for him. But he did try. And like you, I hope that some day he will have the urge to help again (after all, his real job is working with kids K-6) We’ll have to chat about that some day.

    Diabetes camp was such a blessing. It gave our son a sense of freedom and normality, and it gave us a break. Really, it gave him a break from constant parenting, too.

  3. Nancy says:

    Our 8 y/o son will be going to a diabetic summer camp for the first time this year. We all are looking forward to it, but with a bit of butterflies in the stomach. It’s going to be the first time since his diagnosis, 3 years ago, that he will not sleep at home. I trust completely the camp’s staff, but I am afraid he’ll be homesick. We won’t know until we try though…

  4. moiracmcc says:


    I used to be one of the helper moms who helped check kids in. Trust me — some are homesick the first day and night but by the second — they ALL love it! You are doing a wonderful thing for him (and for you!) It’s also SO GOOD for the kids in your family who DON”T have diabetes. My other daughter loved that time — when diabetes did not get in the center of everything. Partially, it was gift to her!

  5. Camille says:

    Jacob is 4 and this summer will be our firt familly weekend at the D Carowanis camp. I can’t wait!! We will be going every summe until his 8 and can go on his own, and then…
    ”As we get closer to camp I’ll simply slow the car down, shove my son out the door and peal off, tires (and me) squealing as we head toward freedom.” lol

  6. Lisa says:

    Ok, I am a resistor, but K is going this summer for 1 week for the first time, at her insistence! Why do I resist, purely selfish, she is my only child and I don’t want to lose her for a week. I am also concerned that she will become jaded that so many deal with what she does and that it is not fair. She has such a great attitude. However, when I had this conversation with her, she very seriously said maybe she could help others realize that attitude is everything. So, she is going and I do not believe she will be homesick for one minute, but I will miss her every moment.

  7. Amy says:

    My daughter has done 2 wacky weekends at Barton and had a great time but I can’t talk her into going in the summer.

  8. Jodi says:

    I will be dropping my 10 yr old daughter (T1 for 6 years) off for a weekend camp in 2 days. Last year was her first camp and we were all a little nervous. I think as I slow the car down this year she will be opening the door! She loved it and has been looking forward to going back all year! It is hard to let your diabetic child go to camp the first time but every child and parent should get the opportunity to experience it once (then get to go back again the next time).

  9. Kelly says:

    We too have a friend that when my daughter was diagnosed 5 years ago told me the only thing I really HAD to do was send her to camp. This is the first year she is old enough and I am both worried (what will she do without me?) and really excited for all of us. Thanks to you and your followers (gotta love the DOC) for the words of encouragement.

  10. Greg Lessard says:

    I spent ten summers at Camp Joslin. It is the greatest place on earth. It saved my life from diabetes and more importantly, I learned how to live. So many parts of who I am today came from what I learned at Camp Joslin. I learned and taught more about diabetes than most doctors will ever know, but diabetes was only one part of the best education I have ever received. Among other things, I learned how to live life to the fullest, how to care for and respect others, how to think for myself, how to lead my peers and how to educate children.

    Below, I have written a fairly long description of my Camp Joslin experience. If you don’t want to read it, here is the summary. Camp Joslin is AWESOME!! Don’t hesitate to send your child who happens to have diabetes, to camp. It is the best thing you can do to help them learn about diabetes. For everyone else, here is the narrative:

    Before I went to Camp Joslin, I was having a very difficult time dealing with the fact that I had diabetes. I had diabetes for a little over two years and I hated it and anyone connected to it, with a passion. I happily bucked the help from numerous doctors and psychologists. In fact I relished giving them a difficult time. It was my therapy. I was a good kid, but I took out my frustrations on them.

    I was a very strong willed boy. After two years of my mom and dad chasing me around the house with my insulin shot and blood check meter and no success in learning how to manage my diabetes, I was told by one of my doctors that they were recommending me to Paul Madden, a counselor at the Joslin Clinic in Boston. She told me that this was my last chance. If I didn’t let him help me, no one could.
    I had already defeated numerous doctors and counselors. I looked forward to breaking Paul Madden too.

    Before my appointment with Paul, my dad could sense what I was thinking. He told me in no uncertain terms that if I wasn’t polite to Paul, that he would brain me when I got home.

    I went to the appointment. I said my pleases and thank yous and answered every question with a “Yes” or “No.” I may have even elaborated on an answer or two, but the entire time, I fixed Paul with a stare that told him that I didn’t believe a word he said and if I got the chance I would strike him down. I had practiced this stare and I knew it would intimidate him.

    Paul never asked me a question about diabetes. We spent 45 minutes talking about soccer, boy scouts, fishing, friends, and school. Little did I know that he was sizing me up.

    At the end of the session, he put his pad and pen down, looked me in the eye and said, “You know Greg, I really like you. You have been wanting to kill me for nearly an hour now. Yet, you have been very polite to me. I appreciate that.” This is where he showed his true genius as a counselor. “I want make a bet with you,” he said.

    “A bet?”, I asked.

    “Yeah, a bet,” he replied.

    I was intrigued. This was my chance to bust this guy. I knew I was going to win. “Ok. Name it,” I said with a determined glare.

    “I run a summer camp and I need people like you to work for me. You hate my guts, yet you have been very polite to me. Working at my camp is not easy. I need people like you who can be polite and nice to other people, even when they are having a bad day. You are very good at that,” said Paul as he cast his bait and began to reel me in.

    “So here’s the bet. You come to my camp for one week and I bet you will want to come back and work for me some day.”

    Being a little suspicious, I asked “Oh yeah, what do I get if I win?”

    “You name it,” said Paul. I should have known right then and there that I had already lost this bet.

    Being 11, my brain rushed with excitement. Anything I want. I looked Paul in the eye and knew I was about to break him. “I want a thousand bucks!” I said with eager anticipation. He would never agree to these terms and then I would have him right where I wanted him.

    Paul stood up and shook my hand with a smile. “Done. I’ll see you at camp.”

    I became very excited. I knew I was going to win this bet. I was going to be very rich! I only wished that I had asked for a million dollars.

    As I left Paul’s office, he told my mom that I would be going to Joslin Camp for a week next summer. She was quite surprised that I had agreed to that, but was happy that there was a plan in place.

    That summer, I went to Camp Joslin. I was determined to hate it. I did my best to win the bet. I had $1000.00 nearly in my grasp. All I had to do was not work for Paul Madden. How hard could that be? I was going to be a wealthy man.

    After an hour in the camp, I had settled in, met my counselors and even taken the swim test. After two hours I had met all of the other campers in my cabin. I was the youngest and a little intimidated by some of the bigger boys. But they turned out to be pretty nice.

    At dinner, I was encouraged to bang my hands on the table and shout crazy songs as loud as I could. The counselors performed all kinds of amusing skits. The deep respect and friendship that the counselors had for each other was impressive. I was starting to have fun, even though I wasn’t going to admit it!

    After dinner we ran all over camp in a scavenger hunt that helped us get familiar with the layout of Camp Joslin. Then we went to the opening night ceremony at the campfire circle. I was shocked when Paul asked, “How many people here have diabetes?” Everyone raised their hand. I couldn’t believe it!

    Paul proceeded to challenge us to another bet. “I am the loudest man in the history of the world,” he shouted louder than I had ever heard anyone shout before. “I will bet you all a soda (soda is the best thing ever at Camp Joslin), that I can shout louder than all of you combined,” he yelled this even louder than before. I was beginning to wonder if he had a hidden microphone or a third lung. How he could he shout so loud?

    “On the count of three, I want you to repeat after me,” he said even louder. “One”, he shouted with a roar. “Two”, he shouted even louder than before. “Three,” he shouted with a deafening yell. “I” he hollered. We repeated as loud as we could “I”.

    Paul stopped us and encouraged us to do a better job. Clearly we had misunderstood the terms of the bet.

    “I” he boomed at us. “I” we screamed at the top of our lungs. “I AM” he yelled so loud that his voice shattered. “I AM” we echoed back even louder. “I AM OUTSTANDING,” he screamed with his broken voice. “I AM OUTSTANDING”, we yelled into the night and it was echoed back to us from the other side of Putnam Pond. “Yes you are,” Paul replied. For a kid with low self esteem, I had just begun to learn my first Camp Joslin lesson. (We did get the soda the next day. This guy honored his bets. I could still get rich…)

    That night, our senior counselor, Scott, gave us the opening night talk. He explained the rules of the camp and how we were to get along and take care of each other. We were already starting to bond as a cabin. Soon after that, it was lights out.

    My first week at camp went by in a flash. We played every sport known to man, sang songs, went swimmg, boating and fishing. We did archery, played games, watched skits, and went on the hike to heck. We even had some down time and learned that it was important to write letters home to our Moms.

    The food was pretty good. We ate as a cabin, sharing all that was on our table. We found that peanut butter could be eaten with anything…apples, toast, nilla wafers, cereal, pancakes, with ham sandwiches, even by itself (gotta have your meats:) We even had ice cream and McDonald’s ( we had to walk five miles back from the ice cream shop to work off the extra sugar, but it was worth it!).

    Suddenly, it was time for the week ending banquet. We had chicken cordon bleu and a special dessert of vanilla pudding in a graham cracker crust with strawberries or red raspberries on top. After the banquet, we watched the funniest skit I have ever seen with Kevin Wilcoxen (the funniest counselor ever and future camp director) as the star.

    Then came the awards ceremony, where every kid earned at least a couple of patches or certificates. After the ceremony, we went to the campfire circle for the closing ceremony. At the end of the ceremony, we closed the camp session by sing “JOSLIN” in a round. “J- O- S- L- I- N, J- O- S- L- I -N, Loyalty and Friendship Too, All We Do, We Do For You, J -O- S- L -I- N, J- O- S- L- I-N….

    How did we get to the end of the session so fast! We did all of those activities and somewhere along the way, we learned a ton about diabetes too. I even liked it. No wait, I loved it!!

    The next day I went home in tears, because I didn’t want to leave. My mom thought that I had hated it. When she asked if I didn’t want to go back again, I said, “I can’t wait to go back next year. Can you sign me up for two weeks?” She was dumbfounded. I spent the winter dreaming of being my senior counselor or some day being the camp director, just like Paul.

    Ten years later, I knew that real life was not going to let me return to camp the following summer. At the end of the summer, I went to Paul to thank him for all that he had done for me. He and my friends at Joslin literally changed my life. At the end of the conversation, I asked him, “Paul, do you remember our bet? You clearly won. What do I owe you?”

    “Nothing,” he replied. “You worked for me for ten years.” With that he shook my hand and thanked me for all that I had done for him and the camp. I was in tears again, because I didn’t want to leave…

    I am forever grateful for what Paul Madden and Camp Joslin have done for me. Since then, I have become a music educator with over 500 students a year. As a teacher, I truly hope that I can be even half the educator and leader that Paul Madden was for me and countless other campers.

    Camp Joslin has been one of the most important and wonderful experiences of my life. I hope that if you have a child with diabetes, that you will not hesitate to send him or her to camp this summer.
    Greg Lessard

  11. Kelly says:

    While I am not the parent of a child with diabetes, I AM one of those kids who went to camp every summer. The first year (maybe 2), I was homesick but still enjoyed camp. By year 10, as a counselor at camp all summer, I was the one telling my parents, “see you in August. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.” I didn’t want them to be slowing the car down to drop me off!! After a few years off, I got reconnected with camp and became part of their Alumni committee, and last year I got married on the grounds of Barton and had my wedding reception in the dining hall! I couldn’t think of another place I wanted to spend one of the most important days of my life, and was very excited that my friends and family who had heard so much about camp over the last 25 or so years would be able to see the place that meant so much to me.

    It’s not for everyone – I have a relative with diabetes who attended the same camp I did, and while I think she liked it enough, it just wasn’t for her – but for many of us, camp is like our second home. My mother and my endocrinologist “forced” me to go the first year, thinking it would be a good experience for me – and boy, was it ever. I’m sure my siblings enjoyed the time without the ‘D word’ being mentioned or worried about all the time, too.

    Of course, everyone takes something different out of similar experiences, so not every child thinks diabetes camp is the *best*, but I just wanted to go on record as one of the former campers who knows that diabetes camp changed her life in so many good ways, they’re almost impossible to list.

  12. I really needed to read this today. I’m getting ready to take my 9 year-old daughter to her first camp (everyone there is type 1) and I am a nervous wreck… but she is SO excited! I know she’ll love it. I just have to make it through the drop-off, myself. ;)

    • Moira says:

      Amy she will love it –and so will you. The first year I was soooo nervous. The second year I slowed down the car and shoved her out. LOL!! Let me know how it goes!

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