Most of the year, they’re thought to be different. Fragile. High maintenance. Perhaps seconds from a seizure.
But at Camp Fun in the Sun, kids with diabetes are surrounded by other kids with diabetes as well as counselors, some of whom also are diabetic. They all know the ins and outs of managing their auto-immune disorders.
Tucked within a pine forest on the shores of North Idaho’s lower Twin Lake, the camp is run by Inland Northwest Health Services using the rustic facilities at Methodist-owned Camp Twinlow. Kids in grades 7-12 spend a week. Campers in grades 1-6 attend a separate four-and-a-half day session.
Camp counselors – with aliases like “Aloha,” “Jaberwocky,” “Candyshack,” “Ding Dong” and “Critter” – organize tried and true favorites like campfires, costumed theme dinners, flag raisings and sing-alongs.
Dieticians, registered nurses, emergency room physicians, EMTs and veteran volunteers are among the camp’s staff. They’re prepared for every eventuality, from hypoglycemia to homesick blues, broken insulin pumps and campers’ occasional 2 a.m. insulin adjustments.
Organizers said that doesn’t detract from the camp’s mission to help kids dive head-first into fun, friendships and outdoor recreation – without worrying about their disease.
Twelve-year-old Mason Whitlock, a third-year camper from Benton, Wash., clutched a yellow folder filled with his health records and lined up outside the combo medical facility/dining hall dubbed “Needlepoint.”
Gradually, he and his fellow campers filed in for pre-lunch blood sugar tests, overseen by the camp medical director, “Defib.” Afterward, campers picked appropriate menu items based on their insulin regimes. Meals and snacks are fastidiously planned by “Leftover” and “Splenda.”
Outside, Whitlock, whose two sisters had joined him in years past, said he’s soloing this year.
“I feel a lot more independent,” he said proudly alongside cabin mate Alec Jespersen, 13, of Spokane Valley.
Jennifer “Juniper” Polello, INHS’ health education manager, said self-reliance is a trait campers frequently pick up.
For the youngest kids, for example, it may be the first time they’ve felt comfortable giving themselves insulin injections.
The kids seem to take their diabetes in stride.
“We’re a lot more mature than other kids our age,” said 15-year-old River Ebberson of Wenatchee matter-of-factly.
Outside the mess hall, a cluster of girls, arms plastered in flowery designs they’d inked on each other, vied for Whitlock’s and Jespersen’s attention. “Hey, did Bridget tell you guys to write me?” flirted one of the girls.
Meanwhile, all 78 campers – a visual sea of cargo shorts, T-shirts and hemp necklaces – plopped down at big round tables with other kids from their cabins.
Natives of Washington, Idaho, California and Montana, for a week the campers go by their cabin-selected nicknames.
So you’ll see the Bravehearts joined the Diabetes Kings, the Queens of Hearts and the Sunshine Souls munching on deli meat and cheese sandwiches, salads, apples and sugar-free chocolate pudding. They wash it all down with cartons of cold milk, donated by an area dairy.
On a hot sunny day late last month, the campers had worked up appetites competing in morning Olympics games. Events included things like a makeshift Slip ’N Slide, dubbed the “luge,” and long jumps off the lake dock.
Pairs of counselors toting backpacks of medical necessities and insulin accompany campers to every activity.
“It’s fun, because you can go around and do everything and not have to worry,” said Jesperson.
Camp Director Lisa “LaBamba” Randall said the experience provides a vacation for parents, too. “They can take a break from diabetes and know we’ll take care of (their kids).”
Grace Teaney, a sixth-grader from Los Angeles, said it’s a relief spending time with other kids who are intimately familiar with diabetes, its sometimes nasty side effects and treatment protocols.
At school “you tell your friend the whole story, … and they say, ‘What? What’s blood sugar,’ ” said the 12-year-old diabetic, her fingers knotting colorful lanyard strands into a key chain for her mom.
She and her twin sister, Kathryn, and their friend, Katie Decker, none of whom suffers from the disease, giggled as they replayed colorful details from the previous evening’s Oscar Night festivities.
All the campers were assigned celebrity identities, they explained. Grace was Faith Hill; Tim McGraw was her escort. Kathryn played Eva Longoria to her make-believe Tony Parker. Katie, aka Britney Spears, snagged K-Fed.
Everyone dressed for their parts, laughed the girls.
After a lasagna dinner in the mess hall, the young stars rock ’n’ rolled in a nearby barn. Laser lights, a disco ball, black lights and counselors-turned-DJs kept everyone on their feet, the girls said.
Lots of campers come back year after year. And when they’re old enough, many become counselors for years on end.
The kids have “such a great time we practically have to kick them out” on going-home day, laughed INHS’ Polello.
At Camp Fun in the Sun, kids get a chance to feel normal, she said.
“Our name says it all,” Polello smiled.