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Being Kids First

Special camps for special families

by Vaun Thygerson
Staff writer and mother of three

At Bearskin Meadows Diabetic Camp, checking insulin pumps and blood sugars are as commonplace as singing around the campfire. This specialized camp near Hume Lake gives children like 11-year-old Lexie Watkins a chance to feel “normal” and make connections with other pre-teens with diabetes.

The campers enjoy being around others who understand. No one asks questions like: “Why do you give yourself shots?” “Don’t you get sick of doing that every day?” or “Does that hurt?”

“It’s very important all kids have the opportunity to attend camp,” says Susan Graham, Director of H.E.A.R.T.S. Connection. “Going to camp is something they are going to remember for the rest of their lives.”

Common Bond

Special needs camps become a place of acceptance where young people can find others who share similar experiences.  When a camp focuses on the needs of a special population, the campers find a place to succeed where many “firsts” await them.

Lexie attended this diabetic family camp with her mother, Jennifer, and her seven-year-old sister, Jaycee.  “I wanted her to go to camp, so that she could meet other kids her age that are diabetic,” says Jennifer.  “I also wanted her to be in an environment where she felt ‘normal’ for a week.  I also felt for our family that it would be a great opportunity to meet other diabetic families, and I liked that they also catered to the non-diabetic siblings as well.”

Jennifer felt the support she received from other families with diabetic children was invaluable.  “The parents were all together for three hour sessions each day without their kids to cry, laugh, share stories, learn more about diabetes and what the future holds for our kids, new and upcoming medical research, and networking,” she says.

A Joyful Discovery

In experiencing camp with other children affected by the same condition, these campers learn they are not alone in this joyful discovery.  They make unique friendships where the experiences of camp define its value, not their special needs.  In addition to learning more about their disability, these camps offer children a chance for adventurous activities like swimming, archery, canoeing, horseback riding, and much more.

Graham says these camps give kids a chance to support each other.  The older participants help pave the way for younger children, and the younger ones find role models.

“It’s good for kids who have the same abilities to meet kids of different ages to learn we’re all individuals with different strengths,” she says.  “It’s exciting for a younger kid to meet an older kid with the same disability and look up to them.  They can say, ‘They were able to do, so can I.’”

Camps for Special Needs Are on the Rise

According to the American Camp Association (ACA), camps for children with special conditions are on the rise across the country.  Major diseases and disabilities burden the childhood of tens of thousands of youth each year. One in five-hundred children suffers from either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. It is the most expensive major disease known, costing over $100 billion for treatment and its complications. Juvenile arthritis affects an estimated 285,000 children under age seventeen, and 50,000 of them have juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. And, cancer is the leading cause of non-accidental death among children.

Camps’ Remarkable Influence

Whether the special camp is located around the corner or miles away, the staff and counselors have been preparing all year to assure these children not only have the time of their lives but do so in a safe and healthy environment.

Lexie was so impressed with her counselors that she plans on becoming one herself in a few years.  Bearskin Meadows also offers leadership-in-training programs where participants learn leadership skills and how to work with campers and staff in the camp environment.

“So many of the counselors are college kids that go to UCLA, Cal Poly, Fresno State, Berkeley, and Oregon State that come back for the summer to mentor and help these kids,” says Jennifer.  “The majority of these counselors grew up going to camp either as a sibling of a diabetic or a diabetic themselves.”

To learn more about camp and child development, please visit the American Camp Association’s website, ; For more information on local resources, please contact H.E.A.R.T.S. Connection at

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Tags: Camp, Featured Story, Special Needs

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