Friday, August 23, 2013

Diabetes Camp: A place to have fun, make life-long friends and learn.

Dennis J. Pillion, Ph.D., Professor (retired), Dept. of Pharmacology & Toxicology, UAB

Diabetes camps were first started in the 1930’s by physicians who felt that their young patients with Type 1 diabetes mellitus would benefit from the physical challenges and social interactions that are found in the camping experience.  Young persons with diabetes were often not able to experience a night away from home, since their diabetes required continuous attention, usually provided by their parents.  Diabetes camps allowed children with Type 1 diabetes an opportunity to stay away from home for days or even weeks, in a rural setting, under the supervision of physicians, nurses, dieticians and camp staff/counselors, many of whom had Type 1 diabetes themselves.  The camp experience provided a welcome vacation from daily diabetes care for parents of children with diabetes and allowed the children a unique opportunity to meet others with the same health care needs. 

Today, advances in diabetes care, particularly blood glucose monitors that allow instantaneous measurements of blood glucose concentrations, have allowed greater freedom for children with Type 1 diabetes to lead a more normal lifestyle.  Nonetheless, the experience of attending camp with dozens or even hundreds of other children with diabetes can be a tremendous benefit to children who battle daily to manage a chronic illness and who assume important responsibility for their own health care at a young age.

Alabama has a long history of providing some of the largest and most widely respected diabetes camps in the world, with Camp Seale Harris and Camp Sugar Falls providing high-quality diabetes camping programs for more than 50 years.  Camp Seale Harris is named after one of the founding fathers of the camp, Dr. Seale Harris, a Birmingham physician who treated patients with diabetes for many years.  Camp Seale Harris has provided week-long residential camping experiences in the summer since 1947. Camp Seale Harris has used the outstanding facilities at Camp ASCCA (Alabama’s Special Camp for Children and Adults) on Lake Martin in Jackson’s Gap, AL since 1992.  Before 1992, Camp Seale Harris operated diabetes camping programs at several other locations around the State of Alabama.  Now operated by a 501c3 non-profit, Southeastern Diabetes Education Services (SDES), with a main administrative office in Birmingham, Camp Seale Harris and its sister Sugar Falls Day Camps and Sugar Falls Community Programs currently serve over 1500 people annually, including 600+ children with diabetes and their siblings and family members.   SDES programs are offered throughout Alabama and Northwest Florida, serving families from throughout the Southeast.  Each year, over 375 volunteer staff members, including physicians, nurses, pharmacists, diabetes educators and activity leaders, give their time to provide unparalleled medical care and supervision.  A second SDES residential camping location has now been established in Mobile, AL.  In addition to the residential camp experiences, SDES offers day camps and community programs in multiple cities, including Birmingham, Dothan, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Cullman, Guntersville, Huntsville, Auburn/Opelika, Mobile, and Pensacola.  SDES programs are funded completely through donations from individuals, foundations, and local civic organizations, including the Lions Clubs of Alabama and many others.  SDES is an independent 501c3 non-profit, providing services directly to local children with diabetes.  SDES has no research or policy agenda or lobbying efforts, and receives no funds from national research and advocacy organizations.  All funds are
used for local statewide programs.  Children with Type 1 diabetes are eligible to seek financial assistance to attend SDES camp programs and no child is denied access to the program because of financial need.  SDES camps are accredited by the American Camping Association, meeting over 300 safety requirements.

A child with Type 1 diabetes who is newly diagnosed, or who has never experienced a residential camp program, can attend a day camp program or a family weekend event to be introduced to the diabetes management program that Camp Seale Harris and Camp Sugar Falls have used over the past 56 years, focused on frequent monitoring of blood glucose levels, increased physical activity, and nutritional support geared to balance blood glucose levels, under the supervision of both medical professionals and older campers skilled in diabetes care.  Control of blood glucose levels and learned independence in diabetes self-care have been the cornerstones of diabetes management at camp since its very beginnings, but the benefits of the camping experience go far beyond simply maintaining the status quo and keeping children safe. 

Education occurs at camp in thousands of “teachable moments” every day.  As one younger camper watches an older camper using a new type of equipment, such as an insulin pump or a continuous glucose monitor, he or she opens the door to new possibilities in his or her own care and management.  Positive peer pressure and positive role models become an essential part of the camping experience.  Selection of older campers to serve as counselors- in-training and counselors is an important and careful process.  These older campers sleep in the cabins with the younger campers and oversee their glucose monitoring and insulin administration, as well as serving as a liaison to the camp medical staff.  For campers, diabetes education occurs in both formal classes and in programs that raise awareness, among campers and their parents, of the causes of diabetes, current treatment options, research efforts underway to find a cure for the disease, and chat sessions or skits that address the emotional aspects of living with a chronic disease, including guilt, anger, depression, difficulty in finding good medical care, medical insurance issues and many other topics that concern young people with diabetes and their parents.  It is common that a camper will comment at the end of a week at camp that he or she learned so much at camp, just by watching and listening.  An underlying goal of the diabetes camp experience is that every camper comes out of camp with a wealth of new knowledge about how to manage their disease.  Parents of children with diabetes will comment on how much their children have learned at camp and how much more self-confidence they display in taking charge of their own diabetes management.  Many children have given themselves their first insulin injection at camp, something that their parents or caregivers had to do in the past.   These experiences can play an essential step in growing the self-confidence of a young person with diabetes and helping them when it comes time to leave the nest and live independently.  Parents often go through anxious moments when their children with diabetes first go off to camp, but the process pays huge dividends a few years later when these same children become young adults capable of managing their diabetes care on their own.

Life-long friendships are another benefit of diabetes camp participation.  The camping experience often requires that children with diabetes participate in activities that they have never done before, including ropes courses, ball games, dances, talent shows, campfire songs and skits.  These types of new activities foster team-building and friendships that can be incredibly important for children who previously may
have felt excluded from such activities because of their chronic illness.  Younger campers often appreciate the chance to share a week with cabin members their own age, as well as spending time with the older counselors-in-training and counselors.  The young campers often have never spent time shoulder-to-shoulder with someone who has faced the same challenges that they have faced and who have succeeded in dealing with the many challenges that Type 1 diabetes can present to a student in elementary school, middle school and high school.  For many children with diabetes, they are the only student in their class at school with the disease.  Here at camp, everyone has diabetes. Many campers comment that they hate their diabetes, but they love the fact that it gave them the chance to go to diabetes camp and make these special friendships.

A third benefit of the diabetes camp programs is the opportunity they present for students and health care professionals in the fields of medicine, nursing, nutrition, pharmacy, teaching and counseling. Health care professionals and students who serve on the medical staff are immersed in a community of young persons with diabetes. Volunteer medical staff members may see more insulin delivered, more insulin pumps used and more blood glucose monitoring take place in a week at camp than in a year at another setting.  Volunteers also have the opportunity to watch and learn from leaders in diabetes care who serve as the senior members of the camp medical staff.  Amazingly, SDES recruits several hundred volunteer medical staff every year.  The physicians, nurses, nutritionists, pharmacists, diabetes educators and social workers, who oversee the care of campers, serve at camp without compensation.  Their only reward, albeit a precious one, is the increased knowledge that they carry home with themselves on the latest advances in diabetes management.  But the intangible rewards of service at diabetes camp run deep, as many camp staff volunteers continue to return for 10, 20 or even 30 years.

Rhonda McDavid serves as the Executive Director of SDES, overseeing the operations of Camp Seale Harris and Camp Sugar Falls.  According to Mrs. McDavid, “Sending a child with diabetes to camp is the best thing you can do for their independence, confidence and long-term health managing diabetes.  As a mother of a child with Type 1 diabetes, I am confident and thrilled that we have the best diabetes camping programs in the country right here in Alabama.”

Sugar Falls Day Camp Birmingham is held at the Lakeshore Foundation in Homewood annually during the last week of July.  Day-campers participate in a variety of physical activities, including tennis, swimming, archery and shooting,   Plans are underway for Camp Seale Harris weekend family and teen leadership programs in the fall of 2013 and winter months of 2014, and week-long residential camps next June.

For more information about the SDES diabetes camping programs, or to make a donation to sponsor a child in need, call 205-402-0415; email:; or visit the website at


1 comment:

  1. This sounds like an excellent experience for children learning to deal with their diabetes. I wish something like this existed when I was younger. Society and technology has come a long way in treating and managing diabetes since then- while I wish I had this education and support, I could never go back to the days before I had access to freestyle lite test strips.