News Local/State

Camp Offers Fun And Safety For Kids With Diabetes

horseback riding

Horseback riding is one of the activities at Camp Beta. Steph Whiteside/Side Effects Public Media

Sending a child to overnight camp can be nerve-wracking for any parent. It’s even scarier if they have a child with a chronic illness. But a camp in Illinois offers a safe option for kids who have Type 1 diabetes.

In the rolling hills of Southern Illinois, stable hands get ready to lead a trail ride. Campers get a quick lesson and they’re off, but not before counselors collect backpacks full of medical supplies.

The backpacks are just one example of how Camp Beta is different from traditional summer camps. Counselors are dietetic students from Southern Illinois University. And the 26 kids are always accompanied by a nurse and a dietician.

Listen to the story.

Diabetic educator and nurse Lisa Nation says the main priority for Camp Beta is giving the kids a chance to have fun.

“Our priority is to just let these kids come out and be kids and have fun and do some things that maybe they're not able to do all the time," she says. "Ride horses, go zip lining, kayaking, and things like that, while we're kind of helping them learn how to do these things, and still remain safe with Type 1 Diabetes."

Nation and her colleagues started Camp Beta after learning about similar programs in other states.

Camp Beta is the only camp for Type 1 kids in Southern Illinois. It’s a short one, only two days. But unlike longer camps, it’s free.

“There's quite a bit costs associated with for the families with those longer camps,” Nation said. “So we really wanted to make this inclusive for everyone in our region,

Because kids with Type 1 diabetes don’t produce any insulin, they rely on injections or an insulin pump to provide it. They need to test their blood sugar and adjust the dose based on food or activity, or risk going into diabetic shock.

Amy Stout helped develop the camp, and she says it can be tough for parents to let go. Even for a couple of days.

“The camp itself is for kids that often don't get a chance to go overnight with their friends, even because diabetes is well known to have low blood sugar reactions in the middle of the night,” Stout said.

That can make parents wary of letting their kids out of sight, especially when they can’t be sure other adults know how to handle a diabetic emergency.

Billie Crippin says Camp Beta is the only camp her daughter has attended, though she wants to go to others. 

“She's asked. church camp is actually right down the road from here and she's asked to go and it makes me a nervous wreck,” said Crippin.

Her daughter, Taylor, says her favorite part of camp is meeting other kids like her.

“Just like having somebody that knows what it feels like,” Taylor said. “I'm the only one in school that has diabetes.”

Stout says that shared experience is a goal of Camp Beta. Kids can feel embarrassed about checking their blood sugar and taking insulin before they can eat. But at camp she’s seen kids change, including one girl who didn’t want to wear her insulin pump..

“She brought her insulin pens, because she was going to kind of hide them and you know, go into the bathroom, take her injections and come out to eat,” Stout recalled. “And then when she saw all the rest of the kids were using their insulin pumps, she was like, ‘Oh, why didn't I bring my pump?’”

Camp is also a break for parents who help their children manage the disease. That can be like having a full-time job. 

It’s a task that doesn’t stop, even at night, says Crippin. “Then when everybody else is tired, wants to wind down and go to sleep? Somebody has to be vigilant in the night."

That can get tiring for parents and kids. Taylor admits that she sometimes avoids telling her parents when she has a low — though her younger sister often tells them for her.

“There are some moments when I'm trying to hide my low so I could just do what normal kids normally just get to do,” Taylor admitted.

And getting to have that kind of normal kid experience, even if it’s only for a couple of days, is what Camp Beta is all about.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.