Transforming a “Curse” into a Community—Diabetes Camp


Editor’s Note: DYF (Diabetes Youth Families) has been providing education and recreation for youth and families affected by type 1 diabetes since 1938. Dr. Mary B. Olney, a physician from UC San Francisco, created the diabetes camp with the aim to help a handful of children better manage their type 1. Today, DYF serves 1,900 individuals annually in Northern California.

Why me? Will I die? Can I still eat Thin Mint Cookies? When am I going to get better? How will this change my life?

Following diagnosis, you may still have a lot of questions when you are thrown back into your life. Everything feels upside down and suddenly, things that were easy require hours of planning and careful consideration. No matter how supportive those around you are to your new type 1 diabetes diagnosis, it is hard to empathize with something you can hardly believe yourself.

When your doctor pitches the idea of attending diabetes camp, your first thought is: Why would I ever want to do that? Hasn’t diabetes taken over enough of my life already? With much angst and hesitation, you end up attending; it’s not long before you realize that this experience will be nothing like you anticipated. Suddenly the thing that’s made you so different becomes the common denominator and you are instantly part of a type 1 diabetes (T1D) family.

At our camp programs, we’ve seen it all: a 6-year-old feeling inspired to try a pump site after seeing his friend put one in himself, a teen who had recently attempted suicide by insulin overdose bounce back after finding community, support and role models, parents on the brink of divorce after countless arguments about the management of their child’s diabetes become a team again after spending a week with other families going through the same challenges. Diabetes is hard and at camp we change the perspective of living with this condition; no one is an island.

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The name “diabetes camp” is often misleading, as the focus is not on education but rather on the teachable moments that arise in any summer camp setting: learning how to prepare for a multi-day backpacking trip, discovering how the adrenaline of a High Ropes Course affects the body, realizing that a hearty meal will sustain your blood sugar after a night of getting down at the camp dance and so much more. Our staff, many of whom were previous campers and have diabetes themselves, have an incredible ability to inspire campers to try new things. Each morning we read off our “First List” to the whole camp. Campers have the previous day to write down everything they have done for the first time and all “firsts” are celebrated. On this list you can select activities like doing archery, going on a night hike, giving a shot or trying a new pump site.

Parents and healthcare professionals are often amazed with what their children and patients will try when they are at camp. Statements like “How did you get them to do that?” or “I’ve been begging them for months to try that and they refuse” are commonly heard at every session. The answer is simple: camp inspires kids by surrounding them with others like them. Hearing advice from a 19-year-old counselor who you adore is much different than getting nagged about one more thing from your parents or doctor. The commonality of diabetes provides a support system that quickly evolves into a community; we understand each other and the challenges that diabetes brings. Camp provides the space to bring this community together.

Whether you’ve been living with diabetes for one week or 16 years, the diabetes camp experience is not to be missed. Everyone can use more community and we want you to be a part of ours.

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More about DYF (Diabetes Youth Families) Camp.

“Camp is an amazing environment with supportive people! The bonds you make are fantastic. If you are newly diagnosed or have even had T1D for 10+ years, camp will change your life in some way. Camp will help you learn how to better manage your diabetes and will show you that you are not alone in facing this disease. If you are hesitant about going, you should try it. It may just change your life like it changed mine!”—DYF’s Camp de los Niños Camper

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WRITTEN BY Kaylor Glassman and Patrick Mertes, POSTED 04/04/16, UPDATED 07/25/23

Kaylor Glassman and Patrick Mertes compose the program department at DYF (Diabetes Youth Families), a Northern California non-profit providing residential summer camp experiences for kids, teens and families affected by type 1 diabetes (T1D). Both growing up attending diabetes camps themselves, they’ve experienced, first hand, the transformative nature these types of programs can have. For more information visit: