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Camp Hertko Hollow continues to change lives
Anytime someone asks my fiancé and me how we met, we always pause for a second before deciding the best way to proceed, giving the inquisitor a moment to brace themselves.
No, we didn’t meet on a dating app, or by a series of embarrassingly unfortunate or uncomfortable events.
We met at diabetes camp.
Okay, so it’s not that weird. But the usual reaction we get is a surprised, “oh!” or “seriously?” when they realize that such a place exists. But for us, that place, Camp Hertko Hollow, has fundamentally shaped who we are as human beings.
Matt was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was four; I was diagnosed at age five. We each started attending Camp Hertko Hollow shortly after. His mom, Lisa, has been volunteering at camp for almost as long as he’s been attending. We spent years of our childhood as campers in the Des Moines River valley, volunteered countless sleepless hours as counselors, falling deeply in love with the feeling of knowing you belong somewhere. This past weekend, we had the opportunity to welcome fifteen families with children with diabetes into our camp world, and the joy I’ve felt since I was seven years old continues to feed my soul.
The Closest Place to Heaven on Earth
Camp Hertko Hollow holds two weeks of summer camp sessions, kid’s week the last week of June and teen week the first week of July, at the Des Moines Y-Camp in Boone. Children from all over the Midwest attend camp; I’ve even had a camper in my cabin who lived in Texas. The camp is nestled in the Des Moines River Valley, surrounded by trees and bordered by the Boone Scenic Valley Railroad. The feeling of driving down that gravel road hasn’t changed in twenty years.
Camp also holds two camp sessions in the fall and spring dedicated to families of children with diabetes.
You may have heard of the term “juvenile” diabetes. This used to be the common name for type 1 diabetes due to it commonly being diagnosed in young people. This was a misnomer - you can develop type 1 diabetes at any age - but the sentiment remains that it’s diagnosed in children more frequently than adults. And as those of us who have had diabetes touch our lives know, caring for a child with type 1 diabetes is a monumental task.
The source of the profound impact camp has had on so many children over the years lies directly in the feeling of knowing you are not alone. Family camp is a time for the entire family to find that same solace. Diabetes is an incredibly taxing disease, requiring constant monitoring and analyzation skills designed for grad school. It is a disease that never sleeps, that is nearly unpredictable yet requires a steady routine, that asks you to face fear every day.
When you’re caring for a child with diabetes, you’re taking on the care of that disease for someone who cannot communicate with their own body. You are at the whims of not only the big emotions and spiraling hormones of youth, but also the frailty of blood glucose levels and the sleepless nights of a malfunctioning organ. Diabetes doesn’t care that your child wants an extra snack, or that they’re a little bit forgetful, or that they caught the flu going around school. Our blood sugars will change, often for unexplained reasons, and we are left fighting for homeostasis.
So yeah, parenting a child with diabetes? Exhausting.
On Saturday night, after the children became deeply involved in a game of soccer, we took the parents to a separate room for some time to decompress. Five of us who have lived with type one diabetes for varying amounts of time joined the parents to talk about the ways that camp and diabetes have shaped our lives.
Whenever my friends and I talk about living with diabetes with parents, you can see their shoulders start to loosen, a calmness settle through their faces. Diagnosis thrusts families into a completely new life, with umpteen unknowns and a complicated language and a balancing act that will never stop. I am not a parent, but I understand why so many of them are terrified to the bone. Hearing from successful adults, who have been through every imaginable scenario when it comes to this disease and came out charging ahead, changes their outlook on what is possible for their children. Diabetes has changed so much since the 20th century, with technology that has made care much more precise and manageable, and my friends and I are thriving and learning every day, while caring for each other on the days where diabetes starts to win the tug of war. These moments where we can provide a little bit of solace to a group of parents desperate to give their children the greatest possible lives are the moments that stick with me the most.
This family weekend was especially monumental for my own family.
Last November, Matt took on the role of Programs Manager for Camp Hertko Hollow. He plans and executes camp sessions, manages the volunteer roster, and communicates with families throughout the year as they prepare their child for camp.
I have never seen another human so wonderfully made for a position.
If you’ve been able to pick up on the love I have for camp so far, you know just how much Matt loves it as well. He can talk about camp for hours. He’s the third person to have this position in camp’s 55 year history, but he’s the first person who was a former camper. He knows intimately the way camp can boost a child’s confidence and build the strength needed to live life with a finnicky chronic illness. He not only believes in the mission; he’s lived it.
Plus, with his ability to charm any parent and the way children instantly become infatuated with him the second they meet him, he’s able to assuage any fears about coming to camp.
I had always hoped for a camp boyfriend. If you told 13-year-old me that she’d be marrying person in charge of camp, I think she would have fainted right then and there - and not from a low blood sugar.
Support Camp Hertko Hollow
Camp is a nonprofit organization that will never turn a camper or family away due to inability to pay. Financial support is crucial to our mission of giving every child with diabetes the chance to attend camp and meet other kids just like them. Please consider donating to Camp Hertko Hollow and changing a child’s life.
If you’re a member of a philanthropic organization, like a Lion’s Club or Jaycees, consider sponsoring a child in your town as well.
And please, if you know ANYONE with diabetes, adult or child, tell them about Camp Hertko Hollow. Encourage them to check out our website and consider volunteering or signing their child up for a session. It doesn’t matter what state you live in; we want every child with diabetes across the country to be able to attend. I could write a million essays about what this camp means to me and to my family, of the joy and love and kindness that emanates from this place. Every person living with diabetes deserves to feel the magic that is Camp Hertko Hollow. We are always looking for volunteers, whether you live with diabetes or just care about the cause.
Also, if this column is what pushes you to check out camp and send your child for a session, please make sure you let my fiancé know so I can have bragging rights :)
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