A camper takes a leap of faith on Camp Sweeney's challenge course. The camp works to instill independence in diabetic youth.
"Fear and caution can rule a diabetic and their family. Here, the fear is removed and independence is taught and explored again."
business manager for Camp Sweeney
On a sunny day in July, it looks like the quintessential summer camp, where kids hide candy bars in hollowed-out bunk beds or meet their long-lost identical twin. The mess hall buzzes with loud chatter and the clanking of silverware. Screen doors creak open and slam shut with the traffic of busy campers. The faint smell of sunscreen floats through the air. Out on the glistening lake floats the giant "blob" - a tractor-trailer-sized balloon that campers use to launch their friends into the water. Camp Sweeney is every kid's carefree, summer haven. Especially for kids with diabetes.
Camp Sweeney in Whitesboro, Texas, has hosted campers with diabetes since 1950. The lodge, the heart of the campgrounds, is decorated with collages of photos from every summer of every year, echoing memories and tradition. Camp Sweeney has been recognized as the premiere diabetes rehabilitation center for children in the world. It's made possible not only by the committed staffers, but life-sustaining financial sponsors. Noble Research Institute has awarded 22 grants and nearly $300,000 to the camp since 1983. The grant funding has assisted with improvements ranging from cabin renovations and air conditioning units to medical terminals and playground equipment.
"Part of promoting agriculture is promoting healthy lifestyles," said Mary Kate Wilson, director of granting at the Noble Research Institute. "Camp Sweeney makes life changing impact on diabetic youth and their families, setting them on a path not only for medical success, but personally as well. The Noble Research Institute trustees enjoy being a part of that through our philanthropic efforts."
During three sessions each summer, Camp Sweeney hosts 800 campers ranging in age from 5 to 19 years old - all affected directly or indirectly by the disease. Most live with Type 1 diabetes, a condition where the body simply refuses to produce insulin. Other campers are challenged with Type 2, where a sedentary lifestyle, poor nutrition or genetics have brought on the disease.
While most campers are facing pre-diabetes or the disease itself, some campers are siblings of those affected, dealing with the confusing and frustrating amount of attention their sibling's medical condition demands.
"I appreciate the sense of community this place instills in people," said Bennett Koontz, an 18-year-old camper and brother of a diabetic. "Camp inspired me to take an active interest in my brother's medical condition."
"The entire family dynamic is affected when a child is diagnosed with diabetes," said Billie Hood, business manager for Camp Sweeney for more than 20 years.
Hood explained that, more often than not, children with Type 1 diabetes are the first members in their family to be diagnosed. It's a dramatic interruption. From infancy, children are on the road to independence: rolling over, walking and talking without permission.
Yet, when a child is diagnosed with a disease like diabetes, that relaxed tether connecting parent to child snaps back, pulling both tighter than ever before. Insulin and medical supplies must be on hand at all times, from the classroom to the t-ball field. "Lows" and "highs" dictate every day. The treats we all cherish in childhood - ice cream from the truck, a snow cone on a summer afternoon or exchanging candy on Valentine's Day - is suddenly restricted, at times forbidden. Pump sites, blood sugar tests and diet plans take up the spaces in life where fun, freedom and abandon used to be.
"Fear and caution can rule a diabetic and their family," Hood explained. "Here, the fear is removed and independence is taught and explored again, teaching kids and parents that the child can have fun, just like any other kid, while still managing their diabetes." Unlike any other environment, Camp Sweeney is truly a "diabetic's world." Reaction stations (places where campers can conveniently check blood sugar and receive insulin) are dotted all
across the campgrounds. Every counselor carries a kit full of supplies in the event a camper experiences a low or high. A dietician and nutritionist strategically design every meal offered. More than 20 cooks individualize each camper's meal, using a campus-wide electronic system that allows medical staff to track every camper's test results in real time.
Tests are administered at least five times throughout the day. Even at night, the diabetic world keeps turning: medical staff works in the dark, quietly testing every camper's blood sugar three times, careful not to wake them. Further, there are infirmaries in every cabin and a hospital on the grounds.
By providing every medical need, the anxiety of participating in "normal" activities is removed. Campers take three active classes and two passive classes in the morning and afternoon. Active classes include swimming, learning tricks at the skate park, archery, hiking, basketball or - a camp favorite - playing on the paintball course. Passive classes include lower impact physical activities like fishing, riflery, radio broadcasting and publications. Campers also attend medical lectures to learn more about diabetes and how to better manage the challenges it presents in their lives.
"Camp Sweeney helped me be comfortable with diabetes," said Anna Grace Chandler, a camper for nine years. "Lots of kids don't want to take shots in public or feel different than their peers, but this camp gave me the extra confidence I needed to take care of my diabetes. Here, you always have what you need and you feel better. You're exercising, managing your diet and insulin. It's the perfect place to be if you're a kid with diabetes."
Mentorship is a cornerstone for Camp Sweeney. The ratio of one counselor to every four campers is maintained every session. Older campers are also charged with mentoring younger ones, affectionately called "junior ments," guiding them throughout their time at camp. It's about giving in the same way you've been given, said Chandler, who is now serving as a first-time counselor.
"The counselors are there to discover a camper's goal," Hood said. "For some kids, the goal is to catch a fish for the first time or ask a girl to dance. For others, it's getting into college. Whatever it is, the counselor is there to help make that happen." Many go beyond their job requirements. Hood said she knows of counselors who have paid the costly tuition, out of their own pockets, for younger campers to return to Camp Sweeney.
Without support from institutions like the Noble Research Institute, Camp Sweeney would be forced to utilize all funds for campus maintenance, instead of awarding $750,000 in scholarships to campers who, without the financial help, could not attend. Enabling Camp Sweeney to serve youth and teach youth to serve is possible because of Noble's granting efforts, Hood said.
The $2,900 fee can put a strain on already tightened family budgets, and many campers can only afford to experience Camp Sweeney once or twice. "If it weren't for scholarships and Medicaid, I wouldn't be here," one camper said while dribbling a ball between his legs before being called back to the court by a friend.
The smell of hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill wafts through the air as the 62-year-old dinner bell rings out over the camp. Older campers migrate from the flag football fields and challenge course adventures, occasionally stopping to help their "junior ments" off a water slide or down from shiny, new playground equipment. They're all heading to the cabins for their routine insulin dosage. Soon they'll be in the lodge, enjoying dinner with new friends and surrounded by memories of campers before them who also came to know the secret of Camp Sweeney - that nothing, not even diabetes, can hold them back.