“We’re keeping our spirits high and our blood sugar low,” exclaims Valerie Snyder, a rising high school junior and counselor-in-training at Camp Charm City Diabetes, a five-day camp nestled on the campus of The Johns Hopkins University and hosted and founded by the Johns Hopkins Division of Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association.
The inaugural session of this camp ran from July 29 to Aug. 2, and was designed to ensure that children with diabetes from across Baltimore City and County would have access to a fun, safe and supportive camp where kids learn to thrive while managing their disease.
Children with diabetes often have to forego camps because it can feel risky for parents to send their child to a camp with staff who aren’t trained in diabetes management or who don’t understand the needs of children with the disease.
“Our camp gives children the chance they might not otherwise have had. They enjoy tons of camp activities while learning to eat nutritious meals and control their glucose levels. Best of all, they get to be among children and counselors who are just like them,” says Risa Wolf, Johns Hopkins pediatric endocrinologist and founder and medical director of the camp. “Our campers truly foster lifelong friendships with the people who understand them most, and that’s amazing to witness,” says American Diabetes Association’s camp director Shaunte Young.
Wolf explains that some of their campers have lived with diabetes their entire lives, while others just received a diagnosis. She says the camp creates a safe space for newbies to bond with and learn from those who have had the disease much longer.
“This camp is a space where the children can be independent and engaged, and they know so much about how to physically take care of themselves as young children living with diabetes,” says counselor-in-training Adi Gupta, a rising high school junior.
All the campers at Camp Charm City Diabetes have type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body does not naturally produce enough insulin. Management for type 1 diabetes includes multiple insulin injections per day and monitoring of blood glucose levels.
“Wait a sec, I have to talk to my camp counselor about my glucose monitor,” said one camper. The small black device, which she wears around her wrist, displays her blood glucose reading. Most of the campers here have a similar device. Staff and counselors encourage campers to keep tabs on their glucose levels using these devices, and they encourage campers to self-administer insulin when needed, under the careful watch of camp staff.
“Safe medical supervision is a big relief for parents,” says Wolf. “It gives them a moment during the day — the workday for most — to not worry about their child’s diabetes for once.”
Some of the campers’ glucose monitoring devices are connected 24/7 to apps on their parents’ phones. These devices allow parents to track their children’s blood sugar readings throughout the day, but constant monitoring can get overwhelming. “For children with these monitoring apps, we happily take on the responsibility of monitoring on a parent’s behalf,” says Wolf. “We even encourage parents to turn off the function of the app that allows shared monitoring during the day. We have highly trained staff here who can help.”
The camp has specially trained medical directors (pediatric endocrinologists), nurses, nutritionists and psychologists with expertise in mindfulness who keep an eye on every camper every day.
Valerie’s smiling face lights up as she leads one of the camp’s most popular activities — observing their fellow campers’ artwork and learning to describe what they see, think and feel. Campers squeal in delight as they quickly remove their pink sparkly and race car-printed backpacks to hurry and sit among their fellow campers to eat lunch. It’s an uncomfortably humid afternoon, but the campers’ excitement is apparent. The neatly handwritten lunch menu is on each table with the amount of grams of carbohydrates listed beside each food item.
They intently assess drawings left on the chalkboard from an activity they did earlier that day. The goal of this activity, camp staff say, is to teach campers to explore creativity and use their analytical skills. Many of the activities at this camp are like any other camp around the region, except the staff know how to deal with the complications that come with living with diabetes.
“I loved when we made slime,” says rising fourth grader Michelle Wainaina, describing one of her favorite camp activities. “And if my monitoring device comes off while I’m here, they know how to handle it.”
Before coming to diabetes camp, Wainaina said she didn’t know any other children with diabetes. “Now I know 40 people like me!” she exclaims.
The camp seems to be as much a place for fun as it is a place for belonging and understanding.
Many campers say they feel like they can talk about their diabetes with staff and other campers in a way they could not talk to others. They point out that staff members like Kristin Arcara, a pediatric endocrinologist and co-medical director of Camp Charm City Diabetes, understand them and treat them like real people. “The best part about this camp is that we see our campers as people and not patients. Sometimes they just want to be seen as the kids they are,” says Arcara.
Many of the children described the camp environment as fun, noting they would definitely like for their parents to send them to Camp Charm City Diabetes, “not just next year, but every year!” screams camp attendee Caoimhe Woolner.
Camp Charm City Diabetes is for children ages 6–12 and counselors-in-training ages 16–17 living with type 1 diabetes. It’s funded by sponsorships and grants from the Thomas Wilson Foundation in Baltimore, Helmsley Charitable Trust, Lilly, Novo Nordisk, The Kahlert Foundation and the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation.
More information about the camp can be found here.
Information about the Johns Hopkins Division of Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes can be found here.