Summer camp can involve playing kickball, paddling a canoe and swimming. For children who attended Lions Camp Merrick in July, it also involved checking blood sugar before lunch and talking with other kids with Type 1 diabetes.
During the first three weeks of July, about 60 children who have Type 1 diabetes attended the camp. When the children, ages 6 to 16, were not canoeing on the Potomac River or swimming, they received education about their disease.
Caity Howell, 15, of Bethesda came to Lions Camp Merrick this summer for her eighth season. She was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 6.
“I like how I can come here and it’s worry-free because they take such great care of you,” Caity said of the camp, which is owned and operated by local Lions Clubs.
In addition to the opportunity to participate in activities and learn about diabetes, Caity said she made friends with whom she stays in touch outside of camp.
“We make an effort to get together with each other,” said Sarah Kamen, 15. Sarah lives in Annandale, and was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 2.
Sarah said the last few days of camp were frustrating because her blood sugar remained high despite her efforts to keep it down. But the support and advice she received from friends and counselors helped. She said she would like to be a counselor in a few years at Camp Merrick.
Bryan Yarrington, assistant director of the camp, said children learned about their rights at school as diabetics, how to play sports as a diabetic and technology available for diabetics.
They also learned that new insulin pump models are available and that tattoos will soon be available to alert diabetics when their blood sugar is low. A tattoo administered on the skin with a device similar to an EpiPen, or epinephrine injector, will lighten when blood sugar is high and darken when it is low.
“It’s kind of a break from all the annoying questions [from children who don’t have diabetes],” said Anna Finley, 14, of Arlington.
Sarah said she calls the camp her home away from home each summer. She learns from the experiences of other children with diabetes.
“I almost feel more at home here,” said Kate Lucas, 15, of Alexandria.
Heidi Fick, executive director of the camp, said that each day, children learn about diabetes through activities, such as blood testing or how to give an injection.
Whenever a camper learned something new about diabetes, the camper ran around a flagpole and was cheered by other campers, Fick said.
Emily Flavin, 8, attended the camp for two weeks this year. She was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 2. “Sometimes, it’s kind of hard because you have to miss out on a lot of things, but sometimes it’s fun because you get to meet a lot of people and come to diabetes camp,” said Emily, who lives in Baltimore.
Emily said she enjoyed receiving mail from her family while at camp, as well as cards from her counselor. Yarrington said a big step for Emily was learning how to change her insulin pump site while at camp and changing her tubing by herself.
“I can manage it on my own,” Emily said.
Yarrington said that if children with diabetes learn to manage the disease on their own, they will feel they have control over diabetes and can become more independent.
In school, Yarrington said, most children know one or two other children with diabetes. But at Lions Camp Merrick, they talk with other children going through what they go through each day.
“They build up a network,” said Yarrington, who has worked at the camp for three summers and is a sixth-grade science teacher during the academic year in Baltimore County.
Luca Maler, 9, of Baltimore said he attended the camp for the first time this summer. He was diagnosed with diabetes two years ago and said he was nervous at first because he thought something bad was going to happen to him.
At camp, he joined a zip line, canoeing, a rock climbing wall and kickball.
Luca said he enjoyed “having other people that have diabetes [around me] because I don’t have to answer the question: ‘What’s that?’ [of his insulin pump].”
In school it is tough, he said, when he misses something in class because he has to go to the nurse’s office to have his insulin pump site put back in place.
“It was fun, and we have dance parties every night,” said David Teodosio, 12, of Woodbridge. David, who was diagnosed with diabetes in 2001, enjoyed making new friends at camp, and he learned that an application on smartphones can test blood sugar levels for diabetics.
Fick said the American Diabetes Association used to run the program, which previously was called Camp Glyndon. It began in Baltimore and later was held at Lions Camp Merrick. Fick said it now is referred to as Camp Glyndon at Lions Camp Merrick. The American Diabetes Association continues to support the program through funding and advertising.
Children with diabetes pay a subsidized rate; some receive scholarships.
Christopher Ackerman, 11, of Washington, attended camp for his second season this summer. He was diagnosed with diabetes in 2003.
“It’s been very hard,” Christopher said. “I can’t eat whatever I want anymore.”
He called camp “cool and fun,” and said he wants to come back each summer.
“It’s a cycle,” Yarrington said. “They get burnt out. They get tired of pricking themselves every day.”