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Camp Sweeney

Type I Diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are destroyed. Currently, there is no cure and about 200,000 kids under the age of twenty are living with the disease. 

Effective management of this condition is absolutely necessary to reduce the risk of developing long term complications such as blindness, kidney failure and nerve damage.  

The disease is legally considered a disability, but often overlooked because it is a “hidden” disability. You can’t tell that a child is living with Type I Diabetes by looking at him, but the children are insulin dependent and treat their condition by way of injections or an insulin pump. A child with Type 1 diabetes is required to balance their diet, insulin and exercise 24 hours a day to prevent hyperglycaemia (high blood glucose levels) and hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose levels). 

Simple enough, except when you are the child or the parent of the child with the disease!  When school, sports and other normal kid activities are swapped for blood tests, insulin injections, and carbohydrate calculations, life is not so simple. 

A child living with Type I Diabetes usually sees himself as different from his care-free, needle-free peers. 

Not at CampSweeney! Diabetes, injections, blood tests and meal calculations are the norm. And they go hand in hand with kids having fun. 86 percent of the kids at CampSweeney are return campers.  

Think of what that means to mom and dad back home. They can be confident that their child is having a great camp experience and is safely cared for at the same time.  

Located on 460 acres (35 of those are water), CampSweeney is set in Whitesboro, Texas, between Sherman and Gainesville, just South of the Texas Oklahoma border. Founded in 1950 from land donated by a series of area ranchers, over 30,000 kids between 5 and 18 years old from all over the world living with Type I Diabetes have eagerly filled the bunk houses, dining room, lakes and hiking trails for an incredible camping experience. 

Many area parents and grandparents may even know the camp director, Dr. Ernesto Fernandez, from visiting the popular pediatric practice located at WoodhillMedicalPark in Dallas. Dr. Fernandez, a Dallas pediatrician, joined campSweeney in 1989. 

Our goal is to “normalize living with Type 1 Diabetes,” Dr. Fernandez says about the camp program. “Kids are not different (nor do they feel different) here at CampSweeney because everyone is doing the same thing to cope with their diabetes.” 

I took the two hour drive from Dallas to CampSweeney to meet with senior associate volunteer Preston Walhood for a camp visit and hands-on tour of the property. 

When I asked Preston how he got involved with CampSweeney,  he said that he was asked to volunteer 13 years ago and “I’m still here.” 

Preston and I boarded one of the several AFVs and drove the camp grounds while we visited. We stopped to photograph the cabins, the lake, the pool, the gym, the medical stations and dining facility. 

What is a day like at CampSweeney?  It’s much like the regimen at any other camp except for the medical data that is required daily. 

“Up at 7 a.m. and ‘yes,’ they make their bed,” Preston said.  Following “medical data” is breakfast and then the morning activities begin.  

CampSweeney offers everything from archery, aerobics, zip lines, climbing walls, jet skis and tubing. There is fishing, skeet shooting, riflery, paintball, lacrosse, football, soccer, hiking, cross country, swing dancing class, weight-lifting class, internet publishing and video production. The camp has their own radio station, which serves the Cooke County/Denton area, so they have broadcasting class as well. Parents, you can tune in! 

At CampSweeney, the goal is to find something that especially interests each child. They choose three activities for the morning session.  

The afternoon repeats the morning with the addition of Sweeney Medical Lectures.  These lectures are provided by UT Southwestern and are great learning tools— knowledge that kids take home with them about current diabetes research. 

Mealtimes are special times. With diabetes, “food is a drug,” Preston said. 

Trays are color coordinated and the organization for preparation and distribution of meals is mind-boggling. There are 26 staff members in the kitchen at a given time to ensure happy campers at meal-time just as during activity time. 

Check out the web-site and you will see first-hand the fun these kids are having. Online you may obtain information on camp schedules and registration or give your support through donations.   

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