A diagnosis of type 1 diabetes for a child can turn a family’s world upside down. For Concord resident Jennifer Goerzen, a unique camp offered through the Concord-based Diabetic Youth Foundation (DYF) led her on a path of self-discovery and to a career that is changing lives.
Bearskin Meadow Camp is one of several programs DYF offers to kids (and families) affected by type 1 diabetes. Located in the Sequoia National Forest, DYF opened the American Camp Association-accredited residential camp 74 years ago, and is the only organization in the country to run six-day family camps with programs that focus on family issues.
“Until there’s a cure, we better learn how to live,” DYF Executive Director Mats Wallin said. “We’re the cure for the diabetes blues.”
The camp not only teaches kids the best ways to manage diabetes, but provides parents with a supportive environment while educating them about new technologies and treatments. The camp underscores that even while living with diabetes the future offers limitless possibilities.
“A lot of kids feel really alone after they’re diagnosed,” said Goerzen, who is a former camper and DYF’s camp director. “They might be the only one in their school with diabetes, and might not know anyone else with the condition.” She describes diabetes as being like the ticker at the bottom of a news broadcast. “Diabetes is always in the back of your mind. The news is life, but the ticker is always there. It doesn’t stop.”
Each year, more than 15,000 children are diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Also known as juvenile or insulin-dependent diabetes, type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin, a hormone that allows glucose to enter cells to produce energy. In the more common type 2 diabetes, the body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin or doesn’t make enough insulin.
After diagnosis, families often spend one week in a hospital learning how to check their child’s blood glucose levels, administer insulin, and recognize danger signs. They include hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), which, if left untreated can lead to serious complications. Then they’re sent home.
“A lot of families are overwhelmed or have never left their child with diabetes since their diagnosis,” Goerzen said. Bearskin Meadow Camp offers parents a respite from the condition, and gives them answers about the best diabetes care and management techniques for their child.
When Goerzen and her younger brother were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as toddlers, their mother didn't have many support options. When Goerzen was 6 and her brother was 4, the family headed up to camp.
“My mom was caring for two chronically ill children, but when we went to camp she took off her brave face and people ‘got it,’ ” she said.
During the six-day residential family camp program, health professionals work with parents in classes every day to teach them new technologies. Researchers from major medical centers, such as UCSF, speak to parents about diabetes. The camp also has a professional residential health team led by medical director Dr. Mary Simon, as well as a staff of volunteer physicians, dietitians, diabetes educators, mental-health providers and other professionals who teach the most effective ways for campers to achieve target blood-sugar levels.
Paula Gogin’s son Lawson was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 12 years ago at the age of 7. Her doctor recommended that she take her family to Bearskin Meadow Camp.
“When I went to Bearskin, I felt like I got my life back,” she said. “Life was going to be normal and Lawson was going to be OK. I was learning things that were going to save his life.”
For Goerzen, who over the years attended Kids Camp, Teen Camp and Leaders in Training Camp, DYF quickly became a community and changed how she looked at the world.
“It gave me confidence to do what I wanted to do and bond with people my own age who had diabetes,” she said. “I met counselors who were studying abroad or who became doctors or lawyers. I realized you can do whatever you want – as a person with diabetes and just as a person.”
Goerzen earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Davis, and now oversees the DYF residential summer camps, and supports the new Day Camp being offered in Oakland this year. “We make sure everyone is getting the same standard of care and children are learning to make wise choices,” she said.
“You’re dealt this curve,” said Wallin. “We give the tools to be able to deal with that.”
On May 1, the Diabetic Youth Foundation will hold its annual Families in the Forest Walk in Fremont. It has helped raise more than $100,000 to support kids’ programs such as Bearskin Meadow Camp. Find more information about the walk, here.