What I’ve Learned from 20 Years at Panther Camp

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Me, Tim, and our Camp Daughter

Last week was my twentieth year attending Panther Day Camp, a summer camp for type 1 diabetics. It’s hard to believe diabetes camp has been in my life for this long, and yet here I am! This camp has taught me a lot about life—not just my disease. Panther Camp helped shape me as a person, and I still learn something new every year.

Common Struggles Create Friendships

I started at camp at age 6… And I’m still friends with people I met there 20 years ago. I met one of my best friends at Panther Camp. I went to college with her and her brothers. Growing up, her parents were like my second parents. I still call her mom and dad, “Mom” and “Dad.”

Type 1 diabetes is the kind of common struggle that is hard for non-diabetics to understand. Becoming part of a diabetic community like summer camp lets you share the frustration and also advice for your fellow diabetics. I care about my diabetic friends, and they care about me. I want them to be healthy, safe, and have good blood sugars.

Community and care like this is what let me feel no hesitation in lending my backup insulin pump to my “camp bro” for a few days when his died in college and he waited for the replacement.

Panther Camp is an annual highlight because I get to see all my favorite diabetics in one place, at one time, all working together to lead, teach, and nurture the next generation of diabetics.

Everyone Can Lead

At Panther Camp, the campers are between ages 5 and 13. Starting at age 14 (freshmen in high school), the kids can be counselors-in-training (CITs). We encourage young leadership. I moved from camper to CIT, and after graduating high school, became a regular counselor. After just a couple of years, the camp director asked me to be the lead counselor for the Silver girls, ages 9 and 10.

I’ve been the lead counselor of that group ever since. I’m biased, but I think I have the best group, and I also get the best nurses and the best CITs.

Over time, some kids display leadership aptitude and we’ll often talk to them before they reach CIT age so they can prepare for it. Being a CIT is an amazing opportunity for young leadership experience. After a while, it’s easy to identify which campers will make great CITs.

My “Kids” Are Camp Kids

I’m not having kids of my own, but as a counselor at Panther Camp I’ve had the privilege of watching girls come into my group and progress into becoming CITs and then counselors. Sometimes it’s hard to believe I once had these girls as my campers.

Tim and I have “adopted” one of them as our camp daughter—a title she enjoys just as much as we do.

I said earlier that I have the best group—girls aged 9 and 10. They’re old enough to do all the activities by themselves, but young enough that they still want the counselors involved. The age groups on either side (Green, 7-8; and Purple, 11-13) present challenges that I have no interest in dealing with. Green is filled with a lot of drama and emotion and tears. Purple is filled with drama and teenage girls. You do the math.

Because diabetics are diagnosed at all ages nowadays and because not everyone starts at camp at age 5, only some of the girls in Purple go through my group first.

It’s so gratifying to get to camp on Day 1 and get hugs from all the newly Purple girls I had in Silver the previous year.

Patience is Recommended, but Not a Virtue

Panther Camp is probably the primary place that develops my patience. By nature, I’m not a very patient person. Leading a group of small children around an outdoor camp ground for a week tends to develop those patience muscles.

At camp, I recommend patience… Sometimes heaps of it, especially with the Green and Purple groups. But sometimes you just need to chase a kid down, throwing all patience out the window.

We can’t be patient with everyone, about everything, at all times. It’s just not possible. I’m glad that camp taught me patience, but I’m also glad it taught me how to intervene and diffuse tense situations.

At some point you just have to go with the flow and work around the obstacles as best you can. This is true in real life—not just at Panther Camp!

Panther Camp, a week-long summer camp for type 1 diabetics, has been part of my life for 20 years. Here are some of the lessons I've learned there.

You Won’t Get Along With Everyone…

Like anything, you’ll always encounter people you won’t get along with. It’s the nature of the beast. So many people from so many different backgrounds, a lot of clashing personalities, differences of opinion, and diverse lifestyles congregate at Panther Camp to join in our common enemy of diabetes.

It’s normal that once the diabetic commonality becomes irrelevant the differences come out. But some of these differences have driven long-time camp volunteers away, which saddens me.

But Be Nice To Everyone Anyway

It’s a personal philosophy to be nice to everyone. I don’t like being mean. It’s caustic and corrosive to the soul and just results in a lot of guilt and regret.

It’s especially important to be nice to the people you don’t exactly get along with or like. Showing any kind of unkindness creates cliques like high school—something I hated and you hated and everyone hates.

I carry this camp lesson with me everywhere. I’m nice to everyone at work, I make small talk with baristas and retail people, trying to get them to laugh. Being nice to everyone is disarming. People can still dislike you (that’s their right) but you’re free to be nice to them and make them question themselves.

Take Care With What You Teach

In recent years (the last three and a half, to be exact) I learned that my body does not require carbohydrates to survive when I have normal blood sugars. Camp taught me to include carbs at every meal and cover them with insulin. Doctors and healthcare providers by now should realize that high insulin causes weight gain.

I’m a lot salty about this.

My own ignorance kept me fat and miserable despite following dietician recommendations. My total daily dose of insulin, for years, was high enough that my body weight would have crept up into the 300-pound range. I stopped the progression when I hit 225, finally sick enough to do something about it. You can read more about my weight loss journey as a type 1 diabetic in this guest post on Weight Loss Confessions.

Be careful with what you teach.

I took the words of the nurses and dieticians at camp as if God spoke through them. For years, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t lose weight. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t control my high blood sugars despite all the insulin I gave to “cover the carbs.”

Camp selfie from 2018

Biggest Takeaway

There is always something new to learn. It does us no favors to think we already know everything—and then act that way.

Panther Camp taught me that there’s always more to people than meets the eye. There’s always something new—not just for me to learn, but also for me to teach to my camp kids.

Every year is another opportunity to influence the next generation of type 1 diabetics.

We have a scary, life-threatening, life-long condition that has no cure, and probably won’t for another century or more. I expect to die with this disease—but not from it! Panther Camp and other diabetes camps are about reminding young diabetics that their lives are not over because of this thing. They have the ability, strength, and courage to live “normal” lives.

We can do pretty much anything a non-D can, with few exceptions.

Camp lets us reinforce that.

Volunteering Feeds the Soul

Of my 20 years at Panther Camp, I’ve been a CIT or counselor for 12 of them. Camp is a staple of my year. I’d feel weird if I stopped coming. More than that, though, is the reality that volunteering for a cause you care about feeds the soul.

Volunteering my time to this camp feeds my creativity, too—so much so that this year I’m starting a podcast with my Camp Daughter about type 1 diabetes and how we live with it.

Look out for that, coming soon to Inspired Forward!

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