August 16, 2002

Camp Sugar Falls celebrates 20 years

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Campers and staff pose for a picture during the final day of this summer’s Camp Sugar Falls, a camp for children with diabetes and their siblings. (photos by Dana Johnson)

Camp Sugar Falls celebrates 20 years

Jake Lampton, 8, left, and Brandon Ryckeley, 9, share a laugh during the 20th anniversary celebration.

Jake Lampton, 8, left, and Brandon Ryckeley, 9, share a laugh during the 20th anniversary celebration.

Dr. Jennifer Najjar gets help blowing out the candles on the 20th anniversary celebration cake last week.

Dr. Jennifer Najjar gets help blowing out the candles on the 20th anniversary celebration cake last week.

Camp Sugar Falls, a camp for children under 12 with diabetes, celebrated its 20th anniversary on Aug. 8. What began as the earnest idea of a young physician has blossomed into an anticipated yearly program, making an enormous difference in the lives of children who participate.

Dr. Jennifer Najjar, assistant professor of Pediatrics, started the camp as a way to reach out to kids who were just being diagnosed and dealing with the challenges associated with managing diabetes

The camp, held at a recreation center in Goodlettsville, is a weeklong event for children age 6 to 12. Many children attend year after year. David Buchanon, 12, of Nashville said that this was his sixth year at Camp Sugar Falls.

“It’s fun, like a vacation,” he explained. “I look forward to it each year. The camp helps me learn how to take good care of myself.”

That’s just the idea, according to Najjar, who uses games and play activities to teach the children about diabetes.

“We try to disguise the education as play. Nutrition and medical management of the disease may be taught in the form of a game of bingo or some form of role-playing,” said Najjar. “Education, play, medical safety and training are all very important and we try to combine them.”

Not only is Camp Sugar Falls a rewarding experience for campers, parents, too, are grateful for the program. About half of the parents stay and observe at camp. Parents find it comforting to see their children interacting with other kids without the self-consciousness that can plague elementary-age children. At Camp Sugar Falls, nobody thinks twice about testing their blood sugar or checking their insulin pump.

The camp also offers parents peace of mind. Most parents never give a second thought to letting their child sleep over at a friend’s house or spending a few days away from home. For the parent of a child with diabetes, however, there is always a nagging worry, a constant concern that the child might eat something that affects their blood sugar or causes some kind of problem. Debora Connelly, a mother of two daughters, one of whom has diabetes, understands this dilemma.

“This camp is the only time that a parent can drop off their child and not worry,” she explained. “You know that the staff knows even more than you do as a parent about how to care for your child. Camp is a wonderful thing, a real gift for parents.”

Since her daughter Victoria, now 12, was diagnosed, Connelly has educated herself on the disease and how to manage it. Victoria has been attending camp since she was 9. Connelly sees camp as a great way for newly diagnosed kids to see that they are not alone and that there are plenty of kids dealing with the same issues. Over the last three years, the mother-daughter team has launched their own battle against diabetes, studying the disease and constantly monitoring new developments in management and treatment.

“I’m very encouraged by the research that’s being done,” said Connelly. “I believe that this disease will be cured.”

Victoria echoes her mother’s optimism. Her experience, both with the disease and with her physicians, has motivated her even further and instilled in her a desire to help other children with diabetes. Not only does she want to come back to Camp Sugar Falls as a junior counselor next year, she wants to become an endocrinologist.

“I’ve always wanted to do something different,” Victoria explained. “I knew I could connect with patients because I’ve been through it, too. I can say to them, ‘look at me and what I’ve done. You can do it, too.’

“I am motivated to cure it and I know a cure is possible.”

Such attitudes displayed in her campers fill the camp director with pride.

“These kids are so brave and strong,” said Najjar. “They are such good leaders for each other. They solve problems better and are more disciplined because they have to be. When you see their appreciation for things, for life, you realize that many kids just take these things for granted.”

The camp also plays a role in training medical staff in the management of diabetes. Student nurses, doctors, and dieticians all volunteer their time and, in exchange, gain an honest perspective on the everyday life of kids with diabetes.

Dr. Jon Betts, a third-year resident, feels that being a counselor a Camp Sugar Falls has given him a new outlook.

“Camp provides me with a unique opportunity to be around these kids — to see what they deal with day in and day out,” said Betts.

Both the American Diabetes Association and Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital support the camp. However, much of the program, including staffing, resources, and even the location is donated. Pharmaceutical companies donate all of the medical supplies with no strings attached.

The VCH marketing team pitched in this year, coordinating the 20th anniversary event. Accompanied by the VCH mascot, Champ, the team brought a cake to commemorate the significance of the day.

For Najjar, the 20 years have gone by quickly. She notes that several of her first campers have grown up and now have children of their own.

“The years have gone by so fast,” said Najjar. “I am very proud to have been a part of the program. Every year feels like the first year, every day like the first day.”