On a sizzling hot but beautiful day last week, fellow Key Peninsula Lions Club member Dan Van Antwerp and I enjoyed a gorgeous, lengthy drive near the base of Mount Rainier to Camp Leo, a Lions Clubs’ summer camp described as “fun with a serious message.” For 27 Years, Camp Leo has led the way for kids with Type 1 diabetes.
I, for one, never realized that children with Type 1 diabetes feel themselves to be different, not really part of the general populace. I’ve learned Type 1 used to be called juvenile diabetes, and is an autoimmune disease usually diagnosed in children and young adults. People with Type 1 don’t produce insulin, and it differs from those with Type 2, who produce insulin but their bodies don’t use it properly. While there have been many recent advancements in technology to help manage diabetes, there is still no cure for Type 1.
Summer camp is a childhood ritual for many children, where they make new friends and memories. Camp Leo campers also take with them new knowledge that can have a big impact on their life and health. For three, four, five and six nights, respectively, separate sessions are held for elementary, middle school, junior high school, and high school students. More than 300 campers will attend this year.
Mixed in with activities like swimming in a large outdoor pool, zip-lining, mountain biking, arts and crafts, wall climbing, archery and campfire songs are educational activities focused on helping youth learn about Type 1 diabetes management.
“Camp Leo provides an opportunity for children with diabetes to interact with their peers, realize they are not alone, and that they can accomplish anything they want in life,” says Camp Leo Board Chair Marcia Miller. “Type 1 diabetes doesn’t have to limit a person’s activities or goals and Camp Leo helps campers build their knowledge and confidence about how to manage their condition in a fun and safe environment.”
Dan and I got a glimpse of kids rollicking happily in the swimming pool, were impressed with the expertise of the bicycling coaches, sympathetically strained our muscles watching youth struggle up the rock-climbing wall, carefully stood on the correct side of archers firing arrows at targets, and even enjoyed a snack of raw celery.
“I go to Camp Leo because I’m Type 1 diabetic and every camper, counselor, and counselor-in-training there is too,” said Gig Harbor High freshman Taylor Dingman. “It’s nice not being the only one with diabetes at a camp having to guess how many carbs are in each meal. There are so many things to do there and they are fun. I loved playing laser tag, rock-wall climbing, doing archery, hiking, and playing countless games. It also helps me keep my blood sugar levels under control and helps me to remember to bolus (give insulin) before meals. Being diabetic for almost 12 years means I’ve gone to lots of diabetic camps in Idaho and California, and this one is by far the best.”
According to the latest SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, for reasons not completely understood, the prevalence of Type 1 diabetes in people under age 20 rose by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009. Individuals who do not manage the disease effectively can put themselves at risk for serious health complications including coma and death. Children with Type 1 diabetes also have higher rates of depression and suicide.
Executive director David Glenn explained that everyone at Camp Leo has Type 1 diabetes. Glenn is the only paid person at the camp. All 25 members of the staff, which includes medical doctors, RNs, dietitians, psychologists, mechanics, coaches and other highly skilled disciplines, are there as volunteers, most while on “vacation.”
At Camp Leo education sessions, campers focus on diabetes management techniques, proper nutrition, and learn about new innovations and technologies for diabetes care. At campfire each night, campers often proudly share a range of “firsts” for them in diabetes management. They are supported by an all-volunteer group of medical professionals and camp counselors who also are Type 1.
Camper Samantha “Sam” Thompson, soon to be a senior at Peninsula High goes to camp because “I love to meet people who share the disease and experiences I deal with everyday. Friends I’ve made through camp, I’ll never forget and memories we’ve shared will stick with me forever. Camp is a place you feel comfortable in your own skin and don’t have to feel everyone is judging you. Everyone is your friend. You make connections and have people you can talk to about diabetes who know how you feel and what you’re going through. Camp helped me take care of myself more diligently and realize there are others like me who share diabetes; I am not alone. Camp Leo has given me much joy and excitement and has been one of the best experiences of my life. I look forward to camp every summer.”
Because the disease and disease management is not always well understood by teachers, coaches and others in the community, children with Type 1 diabetes sometimes find themselves excluded from activities. Camp Leo seeks to encourage and empower children with diabetes to participate in a full range of activities, as well as providing them with a range of new skills relating to disease management.
“Registration for Camp Leo has increased tremendously in recent years,” Glenn says. “We’re very proud of the work we’ve done and the growth in the camp that has helped to respond to an expanding community need.”
Since diabetes effects the whole family, in 2016 Camp Leo officials began offering a Family Camp Program. Activities include educational seminars and breakout sessions for adults, fun and educational activities for kids, and recreation and relaxation for the whole family.
“Camp Leo is the only overnight camp in Western Washington exclusively dedicated to children with Type 1 diabetes,” he said.
Hugh McMillan is a longtime contributing writer for the Gateway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.