Having fun while learning to manage their disease

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:50

For kids with diabetes, Camp Nejeda provides it all, By Rose Sgarlato STILLWATER — Most summer camps offer the same activities: swimming, canoes, arts & crafts and hiking to name a few. At Camp Nejeda in Stillwater there is all that and more. Campers and counselors share common a thread-Type 1 diabetes. And they come here not only to bask in the sun and play water sports, but to learn how to manage their disease with the help of medical professionals and their peers all while being a summer camper. Established in 1958 as a non-profit organization by concerned parents of children with type 1 diabetes and health professionals, Camp Nejeda (Nejeda stands for New Jersey Diabetes Association) was created to give children with type 1 diabetes a fun and typical summer camp experience while learning and developing their diabetes management skills. Type 2 diabetes, more commonly found, is managed mostly by diet and exercise. Type 1 is related to the fluctuation of the hormone insulin in your body. “You almost have to become a physician. You are testing your blood sugar six times a day,” said Jen Passerini, Development Director at Camp Nejeda. “If you are a kid and you have to know the math and science of adjusting your insulin levels, it can be tough. At Camp Nejeda, our goal is for the campers to learn the skills and feel empowered.” Surrounded by peers and counselors who more than likely attended the camp, children learn in a kid-friendly, age appropriate environment. “A doctor’s office can be clinical and sterile. Here they are with people who all have the same issues — they learn how to practice and feel comfortable.” she said. The camp serves about 400 campers between the ages of 7 to 16 in the summer, plus a few additional family camp weekends. There is one nurse to every eight campers. Rotating doctors — two at a time including a pediatric endocrinologist and third year medical residents — are there 24/7. The medical professionals live at the camp and volunteer their time and services. With the recent construction of a new health center resulting from a 1.2 million dollar fund from the The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, more modern diabetes management can take place. “Today’s campers have individualized treatment regimens that allow tight control of their diabetes and improved prevention of diabetic complications. Our new facility is designed to help the medical team efficiently meet the needs of very camper,” said Philip De Rea, Executive Director of the Camp Nejeda Foundation. Being only one of six of this kind of camp in the country, Camp Nejeda draws its population from New York, Long Island, Philadelphia and Delaware. About 77 kids in two-week time periods attend the camp. There is a high ratio of counselors and medical staff. Although the cost to attend is $900, it actually costs $1350 a week to run the camp. Even at that, the camp does not discriminate and has a hard time saying no and provides 100 percent financial aid to about one third of the campers who attend. “It is easier to certify a kid with diabetes to be a lifeguard than educate a kid about diabetes,” said Passerini. Therefore, it’s a win-win when counselors become certified lifeguards who can recognize a camper misbehaving and attribute it to a high or low insulin level. There is an instant bond when both campers and counselors are diabetics. Mike Murolo, a 19-year-old counselor and sophomore at University of Vermont has attended the camp since he was 8. “I have been coming to this camp for most of my diabetic life. As a counselor, we are all diabetics; we can see a kid acting a certain way and know whether they are high or low,” Murolo said. “We all have grown up together,” he adds as Kristy Caporoso a fellow counselor and student at Rutgers agrees. “Parents can feel almost trapped. Taking responsibility and preparing yourself for being away from home is great. I was 11 or 12 when I gave myself my own shot, and it was here,” said Caporoso. “I don’t know life without it.” “In addition to identifying symptoms, the counselors are positive role models for children,” said Passerini. “I love it — it’s the best job I have ever had. And it’s a family and we are learning here — it’s good to be able to give that back,” said Caporoso. “I like being on my own,” adds Murolo. As it marked its 50th year of operation in Sussex County, Camp Nejeda was awarded the 2011 Quality if Living Award by the Sussex County Chamber of Commerce. Although Passerini has the difficult job of raising money for the camp which does not receive any federal or state funding, she remains grateful and enthusiastic. “Camp Nejeda is valued and has been around a long time. We have 50 years of alumni providing a giant support group-I can point to a real track record. We have such an immediate impact on the lives of children and their parents.” To donate or find out more information go to www.campnejeda.org or call 973-383-2611.