For college students Richie Holben and Julia Rhoad, spending 3 days at Camp Y-Noah each summer was a childhood ritual. Away from their parents’ watchful eyes, they looked forward to the usual camping activities and creating memories with friends, but they also relished the time they spent with other kids who were just like them – type 1 diabetics.
“It felt like home. It was a place I felt understood,” said Julia. “I attended a small school in a small town, and this was the only time I got to interact with other diabetics beyond my brother.
“It was also a chance to sleep away from home because a lot of my friends’ parents were too nervous to have me stay over because they didn’t know how to care for me – even though I was fairly self-reliant.”
Julia, who was diagnosed at the age of 7, began attending camp when she was 9 years old. Now 20 and a sophomore at Bowling Green State University, Julia still makes the annual trek back to camp, but this time as a counselor.
“As soon as I was too old to be a camper, I knew I wanted to be a counselor,” she said. “This camp had been the best part of my summer for 6 years and I was not ready for it to end. I wanted to help out and give that feeling to other kids.”
Richie, age 18, felt the same way. A recent high school graduate, he remembers his 7 years as a camper and wasn’t ready to leave it behind when he aged out of camp at 15.
“I started as a junior counselor my first 2 years, which mostly entailed making sure the kids were not out of control. I also helped the main counselors with whatever they needed,” he explained. “This past summer was my first as an official counselor, which gave me a little more responsibility. I now have to log the kids’ blood sugars and keep a closer eye on them.”
Richie says being a former camper gives him a unique perspective.
“I understand how camp is run since I was once a camper,” he said. “And, I’m diabetic so I understand that part too.”
Both Julia and Richie have many fond memories of swimming, canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, Gaga tournaments and some epic pranks – stolen mattresses anyone?
One of Julia’s favorite memories was a kickboxing class led by 2 high-energy women in flashy clothes.
“We tried hard to mimic their actions and keep up with them, but 1-by-1 we all went low within a matter of 20 minutes,” she explained. “The ladies just stood up front, unsure of what to do while all of us sat watching, talking and drinking juice boxes. It was one of those situations where if you weren’t at camp you would have felt isolated, but because everyone else was going through the same thing you felt like this was a normal life occurrence.”
As counselors, Julia and Richie are now the ones fetching the juice boxes and snacks when a camper’s blood sugar drops.
“The only real difference between counselors and campers is that I get a schedule and am in charge of getting everyone there on time, I carry the bag full of snacks and make sure everyone’s blood sugar is on track, and (most importantly) I have a lot less energy than the kids,” joked Julia.
Extra energy has never been a problem for Richie – an avid fitness fanatic and employee of a gym in Brunswick that specializes in ninja warrior training.
“I’ve been a big fan of TV show American Ninja Warrior since I was young,” he said. “I plan on trying out when I’m 21 so I have 3 more years to train.”
Both Julia and Richie are still patients in the Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology at Akron Children’s and would encourage any diabetic kid – newly diagnosed or not – to give camp a try.
“It’s an experience of a lifetime and an opportunity to meet people just like you,” Richie said.
The best advice Julia would give to kids with diabetes?
“Take care of yourself. It’s easier to do it right from the start than to try and correct it later,” she said. “Remember, the only thing diabetes means you can’t do is make insulin properly. Other than that, nothing else is off limits to you. There may be moments where you have to pause that others don’t, but don’t be discouraged or frustrated, just know those moments are the ones that will build character and make you stronger.”
Diabetes camp is held yearly in June for current patients with type 1 diabetes between the ages of 8 and 15. Held at Camp Y-Noah and run by Center staff, camp allows patients to have informal, fun interaction with other patients and their medical team. At least one physician is on staff at all times.