GLEN ELLYN – Feeling helpless after her son Cooper was diagnosed with type one diabetes when he was 2 years old, Valerie Christensen set out on a mission to educate herself.
"We needed to do something, so we empowered ourselves with education," Christensen said.
She visited the American Diabetes Association (ADA) website, where she learned about camps the organization holds for children throughout the United States.
For the Plainfield residents, the closest camp was at HealthTrack Sports Wellness in Glen Ellyn, so as soon as Cooper was old enough, he headed off to summer camp.
Only one thing separated this camp from those attended by other children his age: Cooper would be surrounded by campers who wouldn't need to ask why he had to check his blood glucose levels throughout the day – because they would be doing it too.
"It does make a big difference for him to see he's not alone," Christensen said.
Now 6 years old, Cooper attended his third Camp Discovery June 24 through 28 at HealthTrack Sports Wellness, which has hosted the ADA camp since about 2005.
"As long as we can hold the space, we're happy to have them here," said Peggy Hayley, HealthTrack's director of programming.
The camp is open to 4- to 9-year-olds, who participate in typical summer camp activities, such as sports and crafts, with additional opportunities to learn about diabetes management.
This year, some of the topics covered included nutrition, exercise, being safe at school and administering insulin, which the campers practiced.
"But other than that, we want our kids to come to camp like everybody else does – to be able to play the games and have the fun and meet the friends and do the activities," said Sue Apsey, ADA associate director of youth initiatives. "It really is that idea that you can do what everybody else is doing, but you have to take care of your diabetes."
Type one diabetes is usually diagnosed in children and young adults whose bodies do not produce insulin. About one in every 400 children and adolescents has diabetes, according to the 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet produced by the ADA and other organizations.
About 55 children attended this year's Camp Discovery, which is one of four daycamps held by the ADA in northern Illinois. The organization also hosts two overnight camps for older children and teens.
Camp Discovery is run mostly by volunteers, many of whom have diabetes and attended the camp themselves when they were younger. Some volunteers are health professionals as well.
For families, including the Christensens, the camp provides a way for their children to enjoy summer while surrounded by people who are knowledgeable about diabetes.
"This is the one place I know I can leave him and I know he's OK," Christensen said.
Sometimes, when Christensen talks about diabetes with Cooper, he asks the inevitable question: When is someone going to find a cure?
Although she may not be able to take away his diabetes or switch places with him, Christensen feels ADA has helped her to do as much as she can as a parent, which includes participating in annual fundraisers with the organization.
"You're taking that negative and making it into a positive," Christensen said. "It does a lot for you; it empowers you."