A Trip to Diabetes Camp
Deep in the Sequoia National Forest, 65 miles from Fresno, California, is a place removed from daily life. Part of the southern Sierra Nevada, 5,800 feet above sea level, there is a camp. It’s tucked within towering pines that are both imposing and fragrant; it’s surrounded by red sequoias, some of the tallest trees on earth. A stream is running to the west, just beside a place called Fairyland with a mailbox that resembles a tree. It has a roof of bark and a tiny door that only a fairy could use. This is where secret letters are left to be read by the fairy kingdom hidden within. But of the things that conjure magic, it isn’t only fairies.
Totem poles draw the eyes upward to a line of mythical creatures, brightly colored. Smiling bears carved from wood stand on two hind legs, awaiting your approach. In the trees hang dream catchers made of yarn and twigs, assembled by small hands. Decks without covers, house beds that face an open sky. They call this place Bearskin Meadow.
There are also the familiar things: a long blue swimming pool, cabins, dusty pathways imprinted by sneakers of every size. And on this cool morning as the light filters through the trees, children are gathered around a group of counselors. Their faces are smeared with paint, some are with tinted hair—blue, green, hot pink. I am a guest, watching from the distance, feeling as if I’m witnessing something almost tribal, nearly sacred—the List of Firsts.
“First time squishing 37 mosquitos in one day. First time jumping in a floaty. First time having a bloody nose. First time eating an entire apple, except the stem. First time giving an insulin shot.” The names of those campers who accomplished these things are called out. The expectant children listen and nudge each other. They are children like any other, some sleepy, some anxious, some unable to stop poking their friend nearby. What you might not see at first glance though, are devices taped to some of their arms or minute pink scars at the tips of their fingers. That’s because diabetes is often hidden from the public eye; it’s management unfamiliar to most.
Bearskin Meadow Camp is one of the largest and oldest resident camps for children, teens as well as families affected by type 1 diabetes. Each summer over 800 people attend to experience the great outdoors as well as find a community that understands what many do not. It was started by Dr. Mary B. Olney, in 1938, to teach children how to better manage their condition. They had first tried Sonoma as a site, but were turned away as the locals believed that the children were infected with something that was contagious. Those beginning camps did not have electricity and Dr. Mary (known as “Doc”) and who was also described as “a giant of a person,” kept jugs of milk cold in the stream and heated water in the campfire for warm baths. “They made do with what they had and learned how to thrive into a healthy adulthood,” says Dr. Mary Simon, who has now been the medical director at camp for 25 years. “Parents handed over the children to these doctors for the summer weeks, because they’d been told they wouldn’t live. To everyone’s surprise, they were returned tan and healthy though.”
It was believed then that physical exertion wasn’t good for a child with type 1 and that they wouldn’t be able to do things that other children did. Camp and education have changed that, and this place is still a refuge, 75 years later, for those living with type 1. Children learn how to give themselves insulin, check their blood sugars and correct. And most importantly, they learn how to be kids, to be less afraid and to experience what any other kid would at camp with proper preparation and management of their condition. “Camp is about independence in diabetes management,” says Counselor Ian. “That’s the big part of the First Time List.”
After the list of names and deeds is read aloud, the counselors ask the children to make a celebration tunnel. The human tunnel, made with outstretched arms extends the length of the basketball court that’s colored in chalk. The children pass through, running and shouting until they reach the end. It’s quite a way to start the day and I muse that everyone could use something like a celebration tunnel when they wake up.
Next—breakfast. The menus on each table have a carb count by each food item and children (with the help of counselors) bolus for the anticipated meal. In this case, it’s an egg muffin with bacon and cheddar cheese that’s baked in muffin tins to control portion sizes. Kaylor, the camp director tells me she’s been coming here since she was 4. It turns out, most of the counselors grew up attending summer diabetes camp. Sam, a counselor, says, “Where I’m from, I’m the only person with diabetes I know. Here at camp, that’s different. You definitely feel less alone.” The counselors talk of the magic of camp, the people they work with and the long hours. Peter tells me, “I love my job. Camp gives kids a sense of confidence with their diabetes. I might work a 22 hour day, but it’s worth it.”
The afternoon is filled with carnival games and teams rotate from the sponge race to the water balloon toss. There’s even a jail where counselors are brought by kidnapping campers, and in order to be released one must preform an entertaining feat such as singing a Beatles’ song or busting a ridiculous dance move. The children particularly love this as it seems to shift a power dynamic for a moment. They’re in charge; they decide who comes and goes to the box with a paper sign that reads, “Jail.”
I notice two girls sitting on the sidelines of a soccer game and when I ask them why they aren’t participating, they cannot answer with wades of glucose tabs in their mouths. Ah, “a low” and I know, not from personal experience, but from others, that this means they’ll have to get their blood sugars up in order to play again. The counselor beside them asks each girl how she is feeling. “Okay,” one says. “Fine,” says another. I have read of the symptoms of lows and the dangers of lows, but I cannot imagine what it really feels like. I think of how diabetes can be limiting if you don’t manage it properly. I think of the constant hard work that each child must put in to feel okay, to be safe. It appears a complicated, demanding task, between the devices and the measuring of food and the endless monitoring. I’m impressed by the ease and confidence they have when testing and giving themselves insulin. They ask each other questions about their devices: Which pump is that? Where did you get that butterfly tape? They talk about their numbers and when they need some juice.
One girl who is 9, tells me her diagnosis story and her shock at having diabetes. “I didn’t know what diabetes was,” she says. “Now, I know, type 1 is a challenge, but I can handle it.” She adds, “I’m an extrovert.” It is the same girl who tells me later that she needs a hair tie because she’s a serious soccer player, “and if you were a girl who was a serious soccer player, you’d understand.”
At dinner, elected members of teams are sent to collect the trays of food and children pass a scoop to measure out chili to be poured over boiled potatoes. The dining hall is a buzz with chatter about the day: Who won what? Who likes whom? Who did what and when? And then the lights go out and the kids scream. The counselors bang pots with spoons to encourage the excitement. Lit cupcakes emerge from the darkness and the children pound the tables. A birthday song begins, not one that I know, but a special one that all the others seem to know. A handful of names are called out in the end: of both campers and counselors whose birthdays fall on the week of camp. I realize that I’m excited too. An unexpected birthday party? Drumming in the dark with the promise of cake to follow? How marvelous.
Apart from the check-ins, the measuring cups and talk of diabetes on the sidelines, it is still childhood; it is still camp. The day is filled with sports and song and by the time the sun has set, the children are tired and happy. After clean up, the groups file out into the night following counselors’ flashlights that illuminate the winding paths to their bunks beneath the sky. I follow, too, unfamiliar with this early bedtime, but eager to know what it’s like to sleep under stars that stretch so far you cannot begin to count them, that are so bright you cannot imagine sleeping, and yet somehow, we manage to.