Perspective/Type 1 Diabetes
Summer camps can be magical. Campers make new friends, play all day, develop new skills, gain confidence and make memories. For that, parents must make sure the camp is a good fit, especially if their child has a chronic disease or other disability.
While there are wonderful camps for children with specific conditions, such as type 1 diabetes (T1), they aren’t feasible for many parents owing to distance, cost and short duration. With passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), non-religious camps, schools, and childcare facilities may no longer exclude children with a qualifying disability unless the child poses a “direct threat to the health or safety of self or others” or the accommodations a child requires would cause the facility “undue hardship.” Moreover, facilities must make reasonable accommodations at their own expense so that children with a qualifying physical or mental impairment have access to all services and programs that other children receive.
But how does a camp do that, and how do parents know it has? I can speak to both questions because I’m both a camp director and concerned parent. My husband Sam and I co-own and run Camp Tuscaloosa in Hammonton, NJ, and our 8-year-old son Casey was diagnosed with T1 in early 2021. It would scare me to put his welfare in the hands of someone who might not fully grasp his vulnerabilities to harm. T1 is only one among other medically complicated,
unpredictable chronic conditions requiring round-the-clock vigilance. On the other hand, as a camp director, I know the challenges of accommodating children with serious medical conditions in a camp setting, in part because even children with the same condition need to be accommodated somewhat differently. Yet I have also learned how parents and a camp director can, with lead-time and teamwork, engineer the same opportunities for their child to experience the comradery, excitement and joy that other campers do.
It’s critical that parents and the camp director confer well before camp opens. Parents explain their child’s condition and special needs, and I describe our camp activities and protocols.
Together, we identify workable accommodations and resources available to implement them. We stay in contact during camp to evaluate and adjust accommodations, as needed. I, as camp director, immediately begin researching the condition. I develop safety protocols and train all staff in the basics of the condition, train in depth one or more counselors who will monitor and attend to the child’s needs, periodically check in with these staff and campers, maintain open communication by cellphone with the parent and all staff, and reinforce an expectation of kindness and inclusion in our camp family. We train most of our staff as lifeguards, so they already know how to apply adult and pediatric CPR, first aid, AED (heart defibrillation) and emergency care for various medical conditions, including T1.
Turning to T1 in particular, facilities must have designated staff overseeing the child’s care and helping, as necessary, to monitor the child’s blood glucose (BG), count the carbohydrates they consume, administer insulin (if qualified), test for ketones when BG is high and administer glucagon for emergency lows. All staff must know the signs and symptoms of hypo- and hyperglycemia and how to help. The child has access to their diabetes supplies and is allowed to check BG, eat, drink water and use the restroom whenever necessary.
Like other T1 parents whose children wear continuous glucose monitors (CGMs), I can follow Casey’s BG remotely on my cellphone, but I rely on my staff to help Casey manage his T1 during camp. We have established routines. For example, when Casey goes into the pool, he leaves his insulin pump and CGM-linked cellphone with the lifeguards on duty. He also takes glucose tablets beforehand knowing his BG will fall while swimming. We keep glucose tabs at the lifeguard stand, plus in our building and the fanny pack Casey wears. We have emergency rescue medications on hand. Staff check in with him throughout the day, as do Sam and I.
After 2.5 years living with T1, Casey’s responsible management of his condition gives the impression that T1 is easy to handle, but our staff know otherwise. Campers make curious but kind inquiries about his T1 and, touchingly, look out for him too.
Over the years, we have had children thriving at camp with autism, ADHD, heart conditions, metabolic and endocrine diseases, food allergies, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, asthma, sensory processing disorders, OCD, anxiety, celiac disease and physical disabilities. Last summer we worked with a family to accommodate another child with T1, and most recently with families of children who are deaf. In all cases, early communication between us and the parents was vital. Parents have helped by providing care plans, and we’ve recruited staff experienced with children and specific conditions too. Before camp opens, we review with staff the medical conditions of children coming to camp, what they require, and how to give them the best summer ever.
We worked for several months with people involved in the local deaf community to develop our program for deaf children. We met to discuss our vision and plan, learned how to make the camp inclusive for deaf children and ways to communicate with them, advertised the program and a position for a deaf counselor, interviewed applicants and hired a deaf counselor. Once again, we made sure staff understood the needs of our deaf campers and would help them participate fully. Staff and campers have been learning American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with and include the deaf children and counselor. New friendships have blossomed. Camp kindness is key. It builds a larger support system for everyone in our camp family.
I’ve experienced firsthand the challenges of implementing new protocols and procedures, but also amazing results. When your camp staff want the best for each and every child and parents are eager to work with camps, all children can have wonderfully inclusive and memorable summer camp experiences and all parents peace of mind.
Lisa Seitles and her husband Sam are the owners of READ Preschool and Camp Tuscaloosa. They have four children and are active members of the community.