Opening children's minds to new possibilities

Darlington camp for youths with diabetes offers friendship, fun, a sense of normality

July 30, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Chloe Thompson slipped a blue gadget into a black leather holster and clipped it to the waistband of her shorts.

"I'm so happy I got this before sixth grade," said Chloe of Fort Meade as she covered it with her hand. "If anyone ever tried to take it away from me they would have a fight on their hands."

Chloe's coveted gadget is an insulin pump that she uses in lieu of insulin shots. The 12-year-old, who has diabetes, wears her pump for everything but swimming and bathing.

For the past week, Chloe was one of about 50 children attending Camp Possibilities in Darlington. In her second year at the camp, Chloe relished the thought of being around so many other children with diabetes who also wear insulin pumps.

"I go to a small private school, and I am the only one there that's diabetic," she said. "This is the one place where my pump doesn't stand out and I can just be normal."

That was what Jeff Dietz had in mind when he founded the camp in 2002.

"I wanted to give children with diabetes an opportunity to come and participate in a traditional camp in a safe medical environment," Dietz said as he donned a sombrero to shield his face on a recent scorching afternoon.

The Wilmington, Del., resident came up with the idea of a weeklong overnight camp while considering ways that he could make a difference.

"I wanted to do something good in the world," said Dietz, 40, who was inspired by a diabetic niece. "I wanted to do something for kids like my niece."

Dietz's quest to open a camp began in 2002. He started by setting up a foundation. He then spent two years spearheading the fundraising efforts to cover the annual budget of about $40,000. He also established sponsors to donate medical supplies to the camp.

Then he recruited a staff of volunteers, including five administrative assistants, five nurses, a pediatric nurse practitioner, a pediatrician, certified diabetic educators and about 18 counselors.

The camp, which costs $450 a week, opened in 2004, offering a wide range of traditional activities such as fishing and archery, along with activities unique to children with diabetes.

Although the youths get snacks the way they would at a traditional camp, the food they eat is closely monitored by the medical team.

"We have some kids that need snacks that have 15 grams of carbohydrates or less," said Malinda Duke, a pediatric nurse practitioner. "We keep cheese sticks and Slim Jims for kids who are hungry but can't eat as many as 15 grams of carbs. What they get depends on their readings."

Glucose readings are taken frequently. The campers' sugar levels are checked when they rise in the morning, before each meal and at bedtime. Some campers also require a reading at 2 a.m.

The supply room is filled with typical items used at camps, but it also contains medical supplies including glucose tabs, disposable plastic gloves and lancets for blood testing.

With every activity, a medical person carries a walkie-talkie in case of emergencies.

"We do whatever it takes to make sure the kids are safe," said Duke, one of several members of the medical staff who is employed by the Joslin Diabetes Center at the University of Maryland.

As a result, the medical team doesn't get a lot of sleep, she said. Despite the long hours, it's an educational experience for Joslin students volunteering at the camp.

"The best way to learn about diabetes is to be submerged in it," said Duke. "It's a growing trend."

Although she works around the clock at the camp, Duke, 47, of Ellicott City summed up the week.

"It's the toughest job I've ever loved," she said. "The emotion that comes from these kids when they leave is so wonderful. They feel so safe, and they appreciate what they get here."

Becky Byrne, a registered nurse at Wilmington Hospital in Delaware, agreed.

Byrne heard about the program from other counselors. She saw the experience as an opportunity to get away from adult care, which she does at the hospital, and work with children.

"I'm interested in diabetes, and I love kids. This is my chance to get my kid fix," said Byrne, 23. "It's the highlight of my summer to see these kids play as hard as they want and feel safe and normal."

Outside the medical cabin, pediatric endocrinologist Matthew Hebdon, also from Joslin, was administering medication.

"I'm just hanging out," Hebdon said between cabin calls. "I'm here if I'm needed. I check the kids out when they are having problems."

He praised Dietz for giving the campers the opportunity to attend the camp.

"Jeff Dietz is a tower, a god," Hebdon said. "What he's doing to help these kids is wonderful. They have a strike against them when they are diagnosed with diabetes, but Jeff provides them a place to go where they can just be kids."

For example, when Stephanie Janiec's sugar level dropped, she didn't panic. She said she knew she was in good hands.

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