What follows is my attempt to explain what’s great about CWD’s Friends for Life Orlando. There is so much that happens there. If you were there and feel I missed something, please add it in the comments section! Thanks so much.
Okay so first of all, it isn’t like I’ve never been in a place with a bunch of people who really, truly get it when it comes to living life with Type 1 Diabetes on board.
There are the many, many JDRF Walks I’ve loved over the years. There’s the JDRF Annual Conference which I’ve not only been lucky enough to attend, but was also blessed to chair one year. There’s the remarkable, life-changing JDRF Children’s Congress that we attended as delegates and then were chosen to chair. There are the gabillion support groups I’ve attended over the years.
But while each of those was (and is) amazing, none of them are exactly the same as Friends For Life. At the walks, I loved being surrounded by the sea of colorful shirts, smiling faces and folks who are passionate for a cure. It’s always been like a day spent marinating in hope for me. I’d leave with true hope and faith seeped deep into all my pores. But there was almost never time to sit down and truly talk to someone; to bond on a personal and life-long level.
Annual Conference is remarkable in more ways than I can count. Research updates, motivational speeches, training for fundraising and outreach, and tons of really awesome adults working toward the same goal. The bar is a blast too – but for the most part, there are usually almost no children or complete families there (and for good reason. This is not meant as a criticism; just an illustration of why someone who’s been around the D-world as long as I have could still find something new and wonderful in FFL).
Children’s Congress is absolutely one of the most powerful events I’ve ever experienced. I will forever be honored to have chaired it and will never forget what it has done not just for our family but for the world. But “only” 150 kids can go. Thousands apply. How I’ve always wished the event could fit them all.
So now, I know what Friends for Life is like too. And I can tell you, it’s like a wonderful morph of all those things I’ve experienced in the past, with a giant dollop of something completely new. The best way I can explain what it is and what it means and what it does is to share some scenes with you. I hope these help you feel what FFL is all about.
Registration: Okay, so you are basically just signing in, picking up your packet of information, getting your credentials and having a wristband (either green or orange) put on. NBD, right?
Wrong. Walking down toward registration, my heart was fluttering in that “my prom date is about to arrive” way we only feel so often. And I can tell you by the electricity in the air, everyone else felt the same way. There’s something about walking toward a place you know you belong in, even if you’ve never been in it before. I was so excited, I honestly wanted to jump over the desktop and hug the woman checking me in.
And the wristbands. They are two colors. Folks with T1D wear green, folks who care about someone with T1D wear orange. Once they are on, you find yourself looking not just at yours, but at the wrists of everyone who walks past you. Even off the grounds of the conference, you’re looking for the colors; looking for compatriots, looking for connections. It’s so flipping cool that many who attend FFL try to keep their wristbands on for as long as they can (and how cool would it be to spot one, weeks later, out in the wild?)
Right away, FFL finds a way to help people connect. There was a special booth for first-timers to converge at, and a long table with stickers and the like to decorate your name tag with. Sounds simple, but there, folks begin to bond. Introductions. Comparing pump skins. It starts, and takes off with the speed of light, from there.
The “bigger events.”: From the welcome keynote to the family banquet to the closing talks, the bigger events are far more than folks talking at you. Me – the woman who has been around the D-world for ever and ever it seems – I found myself scribbling down thoughts and quotes and ideas almost constantly. Some were new to me, some reinforced what I’ve held in my heart for a long time. And the combination of hearing from “just regular folks” like Jeff Hitchcock and Tom Karyla along with amazing world-famous folks like Crystal Bowersox, Ironman Jay Hewitt and NFL star Kendall Simmons is the perfect mix. Because as much as it’s way cool to hear how a champion makes it work, it’s just as cool – and important – to hear how an average joe (or joette) champions this life with diabetes along.
And while I’m kind of a music snob, Crystal blew me away. First of all, she’s quite talented. Even her newer songs drew me in, and my husband and I both went right on itunes to buy them. But more than that, she’s just a very real person; one who connects on a personal level with all the other green wristbands around here. Her Q and A with the kids on banquet night was one of the most giving, honest and lovely things I’ve ever witnessed. And this really blew me away: the next morning, I found her walking through the lobby, alone, looking for where she’d be appearing at the event that day. No entourage. No four managers and three assistants. Just Crystal, her guitar, her green wristband and a smile. Having been close to some other big “diabetes celebrities,” this just won me over. FFL is so amazing, big celebs will travel on the cheap, just to be a part of it. I love that.
The sessions: The learning is a huge part of FFL. Parents – -and kids – are offered dozens of sessions to choose from. From sending a kid to college to how to count carbs better to research updates to how the FDA works and more, there are so many to choose from, one can see why families come back over and over and over. And while all this is going on, the kids have their own programs. That’s right – mom and dad go off without the kids to bond and learn and even just breath. The kids are so safe – an amazing group of staff give their hearts and souls to run the kid sessions and watch the kids closely – and I know that in many cases, this is the first time parents have left their children for a few hours (something they need to do, if you ask me). Teens get to learn about driving from folks like race car champ Charlie Kimball, and are rewarded for attending their sessions with a full day sans parents (but with chaperones) at SeaWorld. FFL staff advise parents to split up and get in as many sessions as they can and then share the information.
On the last day there were separate sessions for Dads and Moms. I love this. My husband went to the Dad one, and it was the first time in 15 years he’s been at something like that. He loved it. And learned from it. “I need to be less hard on Lauren,” he told me. “I think I’ve judged her diabetes too much all these years.” Wonderful.
The rest of it: The pool. The breakfast area. The meet the faculty dessert session. The sports decathlon. The huge, fun and interesting exhibit hall. The Quilt for Life. All are chances to bond with folks, get to know them better and build friendships that last. It seemed strange but by closing breakfast, it felt like we knew almost all the 3,000 people there.
The morning I left, I helped a young woman who was traveling alone for the first time to FFL get on her plane. We’d just met that week but as she was ready to board the plane, we looked one another in the eye, burst into tears and hugged long and hard.
“Don’t worry. I’ll see you next July,” I told her, almost sobbing, feeling like she was almost a family member. “And until then, I’m here for you.”
And I meant it. I guess the big thing FFL gives you is an even larger community. And in this D-life, nothing helps more than a bevy of true friends. Orange wristband, green wristband; we’re all together.
Learn about FFL 2013 here.