CLIFTON PARK : Kids gang up to cope with diabetes HappyDolls carry messages around the world
Eight-year-old Lauren Kruzikas is one of 42 children with type 1 diabetes attending the Sugar Free Gang Kids Kamp in Clifton Park this week.
On Monday, she and her fellow campers decorated HappyDolls to be sent to other children in need in this country and around the world.
A HappyDoll is a small, stuffed doll shaped like a person. They’re made in New York City by volunteers working for a group called HappyDoll Inc. HappyDoll Inc.’s founder, Nozomi Terao, was at the camp on Monday to help out.
The children at the Sugar Free Gang Kids Kamp drew on the front of their dolls with markers to decorate them, then wrote their names on the back of the dolls’ heads and a personal message on the back of the bodies. The HappyDolls made by the children at the camp will be sent as far abroad as Haiti, India, Vietnam, Honduras and Japan. The dolls the children will receive in return come from places equally as far abroad.
On the back of her doll, Lauren Kruzikas wrote, “It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re still you.”
“Some people have special illnesses, but I wrote my message to say that even if you’re different from everyone else you can still do everything,” she said.
Lauren has been attending the camp since she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 5. Diabetes is a disease that causes the body to cease production of insulin, a hormone involved in the conversion of sugar, starch and other food into energy. Type 1 diabetes occurs in children and young adults, and the exact cause is unknown. Children with type 1 diabetes must be careful about regulating their blood sugar, which means they aren’t able to eat the same things as other children.
The Sugar Free Gang Kids Kamp is an offshoot of a program at Schenectady-based Ellis Medicine called the Sugar Free Gang support group, which holds monthly meetings. The meetings provide support and advice for parents raising children with diabetes and allow the children to get together to learn more about how to cope with the challenges that having diabetes can present. The support group is in its 23rd year, while the camp is in its 13th.
Joanne DeNovio, camp coordinator and manager of the Center for Diabetes at Ellis in Schenectady, explained that each year the camp has a theme that revolves around the letters “ME,” which stand for “Move more and Eat right,” two goals of the camp. This year’s theme is “Bear with Me.” De-Novio said the bear represents the children’s diabetes.
“When you have diabetes, it’s like living with this bear,” she said, displaying a drawing of a man and a bear holding hands and frolicking under a full moon. “You have to keep food away from him, and he can be scary, but you can learn to live with him.”
This year’s program will include activities such as “Grin and Bear It,” where campers will share with each other their experiences with diabetes, and “The Bear Necessities,” where educators will teach children how to live with the “bear.”
And for those wondering, the camp is spelled with a “K” to represent knowledge.
“We’re built around the pursuit of knowledge and education,” De-Novio said.
She also said parents can feel safe leaving their children in the camp.
“We try to get the kids out, moving more, and we feed them nutritious snacks and food. We’re peanut-free and gluten-free, and there are seven diabetes educators here to keep the kids safe and to teach them about diabetes,” DeNovio said.
Haley Shelton, 13, and Amanda Horan, 11, have been at the camp for two and four years, respectively. On her doll, Amanda wrote, “Hope isn’t gone, it’s just deep inside of you.” She said she wants her doll to go to a child in Haiti.
“There was this earthquake in Haiti, and it was just absolutely devastating. So I wanted to give this message to someone in Haiti to hold on to hope,” she said.
Haley named her doll Sonia and wrote a short letter of introduction on the back of her.
“This is Sonia. She’s your best friend, she’s here for you to hold or to laugh or to cry with. Remember, you can’t have a rainbow without a little rain,” she wrote.
Haley’s sister Karissa, 19, has been with the camp for all of its 13 years. A camper in the past, on Monday she was there as a counselor.
“My mother was working with another girl who has diabetes and heard about the camp and the support group through her family,” Karissa said. “For parents, it’s a way for them to learn information about diabetes. The kids can learn about diabetes in fun ways, through games and sharing. It brings everybody closer together, makes you feel like you can connect with other people.”
Karissa said she met her fi rst best friend, the girl who her mother had been working with originally, through the camp and the support group. She said people who go through the program often keep in touch.
DeNovio said Karissa Shelton isn’t an unusual case for the camp — many participants return once they are old enough to be counselors and to serve as role models for campers.
On Monday there were 20 returning counselors who had once been campers.
Monday through Wednesday, the camp is reserved for children in grades two through eight. Thursday and Friday, though, is for teenagers in grades nine and above. DeNovio said the teens don’t need to be kept occupied as much as the younger campers. They get right down to discussions about going through college, or dating, with diabetes. College graduates return to share their experiences as well, she said.
“They call it a reunion. The social networking and the emotional support that they get from being here, together, is priceless.”
The social networking for the parents is important, too, she said.
“A lot of parents have questions when their child is fi rst diagnosed with diabetes that can’t be answered easily. Like, ‘What do I do for Halloween?’ You can’t look up ‘Halloween’ in a medical textbook. But at one of the monthly support sessions a woman shared with the group that she took her children trick-or-treating and then paid them a quarter for each piece of candy they brought back home. Who would have thought of that?”