Daily Herald American Diabetes Association
From cabins to campfires A new twist on nostalgic camp program

From cabins to campfires, crafts and canoeing, 9-year-old Samantha Jacobsen of Schaumburg couldn't wait to pack her bags for her first overnight camping experience this summer.

Samantha Jacobsen
Samantha Jacobsen, 9, Schaumburg, couldn't wait to pack her bags for camp.

Her mom, Lynn, was a bit more reticent - especially because Samantha has type 1 diabetes and is no stranger to facing the potentially life-threatening highs and lows of the disease.

Samantha's physician, Dr. Mary Kreiter, says Lynn Jacobsen isn't alone in her fears. As a pediatric endocrinologist at Children's Memorial Medical Center and medical director of the American Diabetes Association Northern Illinois Area camp programs for children ages 4 to 18, Dr. Kreiter says she sees many parents struggle with the idea of sending a child with diabetes to camp.

Mary Kreiter
Dr. Mary Kreiter

Area diabetes camps

Triangle D Resident Camp

Where: YMCA Camp Duncan In Ingleside, Ill.

for: Campers age 9-13

Contact: Sue Apsey, program director, (888) 342-2383, ext. 6567

Teen Adventure Camp

Where: YMCA Camp Duncan in Ingleside, Ill.

for: Campers age 14-18

Contact: Sue Apsey, program director, at (888) 342-2383, Ext. 6567

Day Camp Programs (ages 4-9)

Camp Discovery Day Camp

Where: Health Track in Glen Ellyn

Call: (888) 342-2383, ext. 6581 or (312) 346-1805

Camp Confidence Day Camp

Where: Methodist Campground in Des Plaines

Call: (888) 342-2383, ext. 6581 or (312) 346-1805

Camp Can-Do Day Camp

Where: Palos Park Recreation Center in Palos Park

Call: (888) 342-2383, ext. 6581 or (312) 346-1805

Other Resident Camp Programs In Illinois:

Camp Granada Resident Camp

Where: 4H Memorial Camp in Monticello, Ill.

for: Campers ages 8-16

Owned by: The University of Illinois

Call: (217) 875-9011, ext. 6641

"ADA-sponsored camp programs have such a positive influence on young lives," states Dr. Kreiter, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "For many school-age children with diabetes, wanting to be like their peers, it's not unusual to feel different because of the need for insulin shots, blood sugar testing and meal plans. Camp changes all that. At camp, everyone has diabetes. Diabetes is just a part of who they are and doesn't define what they can do."

Dr. Kreiter, who has been lending a helping hand with campers for more than 15 years, says locally the ADA served over 400 campers ages 4-18, at three day camps and two resident camps this summer, making northern Illinois ADA camps one of the largest programs in the country.

To help prepare for the overnight experience, Samantha and her family paid a special visit to last year's one-week ADA Triangle D resident camp for children ages 9 to 13 on-site at the YMCA's Camp Duncan in Ingleside. They toured cabins, saw the medical triage unit, and witnessed firsthand the variety of activities, safeguards and dedicated volunteer camp medical staffers.

"It helped prepare me tremendously," admits Samantha's mom, who this year for the first time helped her eager Campanelli School fourth-grader pack a special stuffed animal, favorite pillow, family photo album, good-night notes for each evening and camp and diabetes supplies. "When it came time to say goodbye, I knew Samantha was in good hands."

As for Samantha, sleeping in the top bunk and "blobbing" on a floating raft in the lake were highlights of her summer camp experience. She says she can't wait till she's old enough in the coming years to try the camp's high ropes course.

Medical staff supports campers

Laurie Diasio, a South Elgin registered nurse and camp health team coordinator, says Sam's experience isn't unique.

"This year's 136 resident campers were supported by an all-volunteer medical staff of more than 40 doctors, nurses, medical and nursing students, dietitians and parents, all who take a week from their own vacation time to lend a hand," she reports.

This summer marked Diasio's eighth year as a program volunteer, ever since her nursing school days at Elgin Community College when she first learned of the local diabetes camps at a diabetes support group meeting.

"My passion stems from personal experience," admits Diasio, who was diagnosed with the disease when she was just three years old. "Lots has changed since those days. I remember my parents did everything for me until I was seven."

"Blobbing" - jumping on a giant inflatable tube in the lake - is a favorite activity among campers.

Camping, she says, was always a summer highlight.

"Horseback riding, fishing, boating, sleeping under the stars - they are my memories of ADA-sponsored camp as a child. Personally I haven't kept in touch with many of my childhood camp friends, but they were so important to me at the time."

The biggest lesson, she recalls, was learning she wasn't alone.

"There were hundreds of kids at camp testing blood sugar levels and working to achieve independence and tighter diabetes control," she recalls.

Recreating those memories and sharing her experience with today's campers during special teachable moments is Diasio's passion today.

Now a mom herself, Diasio says she is continually astounded by how quickly kids learn new skills, interact with each other and talk about common issues.

"There are so many who really don't know anyone else with diabetes until they come to camp," she says. "Many don't know how to do their own testing or like Sam, might not recognize when they are feeling high or low."

Diasio says she still recalls fondly her first experience in charge of the medical needs and monitoring of a cabin of eight year old boys.

"The kids were awesome and certainly inspired me," she admits. "One eventually came back as a counselor's assistant and like me, hopes to continue sharing his passion with others."

Camp 'graduates' become counselors

While not one of Diasio's charges, former resident camper David Bajjalieh, 17, is one of those camp "graduates" who returned to share his experiences as a counselor assistant.

David Bajjalieh
David Bajjalieh, 17, now a varsity linebacker, enjoyed his camp experience so much, he returned as a counselor. | Image courtesy of Visual Image Photography

Now a senior varsity football linebacker at Palatine's Fremd High School, Bajjalieh says Capture The Flag, swimming, boating, kayaking, paddleboats and "blobbing" on the giant inflatable tube in the lake rank right up there among his favorite activities.

"I remember how nervous I was at my first overnight camp," he says. ""It was definitely cool meeting others with diabetes and I still go to teen camp each summer with some of those same friends."

Diagnosed at age 5 as he was entering kindergarten, David attended his first ADA-sponsored day camp program just three months later.

"We lived in Mount Prospect and really didn't know anyone else with diabetes at the time," said David's mom, Colleen. "It was the morning of his big fifth birthday party celebration when we took David to the hospital with what we suspected was a urinary tract infection. It wasn't."

The Bajjalieh's came home to a birthday party (David's doctor allowed him a small piece of cake) before leaving for Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital for a five-day inpatient stay.

"It was mainly an educational experience," David's mom recalls. "We learned about carbohydrates and insulin, how to draw up a syringe and much, much more. Coming home was actually a relief, but also a bit scary without the safety net of the hospital. The ADA gave us that sense of confidence."

As a result of the diabetes diagnosis, Colleen says the entire family began to eat healthier and she planned menus incorporating more fruits and vegetables.

"I'm a working mom, so coping became quite a challenge as I planned meals, counted carbs, planned snacks, made breakfast and drew up his syringe and more before leaving for work," she recalls. "At age 8, David's Camp Confidence day camp program provided the stimulus for David to start doing the blood sugar checks on his own. It lifted a huge physical burden and while I still supervised, David was actually doing the testing."

By the time he was 10, David's doctor's recommended he begin using the insulin pump and by age 12 he began insisting on his own independence in managing greater portions of his diabetes control.

In the sixth grade, the Bajjalieh family moved to Palatine and at Hunting Ridge Elementary School, David for the first time found other students with diabetes at school.

At Plum Grove Junior High a few more children had the disease and Colleen says the family realized they weren't alone anymore.

"Camp has always been the one area where David has found an entire community of people who understand diabetes and don't find it scary, a curiosity or unusual," she says. "David made friends instantly and looks forward to his once-a-year camp reunions. Thanks to cyberspace and texting, he's able to stay in touch on My Space, Facebook and his cell phone."

Some challenges do remain, his mom noted.

"We had to get quite creative when David decided to pursue his love of football," she says. "Being a 200-pound linebacker means he needs to come on and off the pump for games, make use of some long-acting insulin and only bolus when eating. Yet, he's still able to maintain good control as evidenced by his A1C levels."

As a camp counselor assistant working in a cabin filled with 12 boys ages 11 and 12, Bajjalieh says he learned a few new things himself.

"It was a little tough getting the kids interested in some of the diabetes education activities, so I tried to make a competitive game, challenging other cabins to best ours," he recalls. "It wasn't too long ago I was learning to balance my carbs and do my first injections. So it's not too difficult to relate to those newly diagnosed."

Bajjalieh says his decision to pursue a teaching career very likely stems from his camp experience. He's now busy completing college applications, hoping to attend an in-state school like Augustana in Rock Island, or Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal.

"I hope I had a positive impact on the boys' lives and would love to come back to help another year," Bajjalieh says. "I've always told my friends that I'm not a diabetic but a live-a-betic and that best sums up my outlook."

Nationwide, ADA-sponsored camping programs reach more than 10,000 children in more than 85 locations. For more information, call (888) 342-2383 or visit their Web site at www.diabetes.org.


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