Letting kids be kids

Scholarship sends young people in the Southern Tier to diabetes summer camp

By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor

Being a teenager is hard enough, but throwing diabetes into the mix makes life that much harder.

That’s why Lourdes Diabetes Center is offering scholarships to attend Camp Nejeda Diabetes Camp this summer for young people aged nine to 16.

Lourdes Diabetes Center works in association with the Wendy Lee Klenotiz Scholarship and the Diabetes Association of the Southern Tier to be able to provide the scholarships. The 13-day sessions for the camp cost $1,850, and the entire cost of the camp is covered by the scholarship.

Camp sessions run from July 4 to July 16 for ages 13-15; from July 18 to July 30 for ages nine to 13 and from August 1 to August 13 for ages 14-16.

In the Souther Tier, young people with diabetes between the ages of nine and 16 are eligible for the scholarships. Applications must be received by Wednesday, April 28.

To be considered for the scholarship, young people must complete an application form and write an essay of between 100 to 300 words on why he or she would like to attend the camp, how it would benefit them, what he or she expects to learn at camp and how the child’s family plans to use this experience in their community.

Application forms are available through the Lourdes Diabetes Center, or online at www.lourdes.com/centers-and-services/diabetes-center.

Lourdes Diabetes Center started offering the scholarship in 2001, and has since sent 30 children and young adults to the camp. Usually, there is enough money to send at least two children, and there have been years when as many as four were able to go in one year.

Camp Nejeda, which is an acronym for New Jersey Diabetes Association, is located in Stillwater, N.J., and parents will have to accompany the camper to camp on the first day and pick them up on the last day. The camp is about a two and a half hour drive from Binghamton.

“It’s just an awesome opportunity,” said Sheryl Dalton, program director for Lourdes Diabetes Center. She said food is supplied for campers, fully-trained medical staff are always available and campers have an opportunity to learn more about healthy ways of eating and maintaining insulin levels. And they also have an opportunity to not feel different from everyone else.

Dalton said the scholarship came about when the parent of a young girl with diabetes came into her office. She told Dalton of the wonderful treatment her daughter had received from diabetes educators at Lourdes Hospital. Her daughter had died, but she wanted to do something in her memory for others struggling with the disease. She mentioned Camp Nejeda, which her daughter had attended.

“And she said, ‘If I become the patron, will you be able to find the kids?’ And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?!’” Dalton said, laughing.

Mark Meleski of Johnson City won a scholarship to attend the camp last year. He had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at 10, and Mark’s mom Michelle said it’s been a struggle ever since. Now, a portion of each day is devoted to figuring out carbohydrate points, checking blood sugar levels, regulating testing numbers and administering shots. Spikes in Mark’s numbers pitch him into surly moods and drops in the numbers leave him feeling physically sick.

“Mark’s kind of an independent kid,” Michelle said. “Sometimes he just wants to take care of himself, but he’s 16, and his numbers aren’t always the greatest.”

Michelle said a doctor has told Mark that if he doesn’t get his blood sugar levels under control, he runs the risk of being on dialysis and going blind by the age of 30. Michelle said she wanted to help Mark understand how better to take control of his diabetes.

So when she heard about the scholarship to Camp Nejeda, she said she forced Mark to fill out the application form and write the essay. “And wouldn’t you know it, he won the scholarship,” Michelle said, laughing. “He did not want to go. I thought I was going to have to shackle him and throw him in the car.”

Mark said he thought he had good reason to not want to go to the camp. “Before we even got there I thought I wasn’t going to make any friends and I thought it was going to be the worst experience of my life,” he said.

Within a few hours of his parents dropping him off, though, he had already met some nice people and started to settle in. He said he spent the time at camp doing things like playing baseball, boating and white-water rafting. He’s made some good friends that he’s been able to keep in touch with over the year.

“It was terrific,” he said. “Everyone was so friendly and it was a lot of fun. And I wasn’t the only one with diabetes, everyone else had it and I wasn’t singled out in any way.”

It was a nice break for Michelle as well. “For the two weeks for me, it was wonderful because there wasn’t the constant battle,” she said. “It was that stress release that he’ll be in the best hands with people who are professionals with the disease. I was sure he would be better taken care of with the diabetes, even better than I could handle it.”

Parents are able to check in daily via a secure website that shows photos of the kids having fun at the camp. “I’d call my husband to the computer and say, ‘Look! Oh my gosh, is that a smile?’”

She said the day they picked Mark back up from camp, he was running around saying goodbye to all of his new friends. “I think all of them kind of had that sense that they were the popular one on campus. They didn’t have to hide to check their blood sugar and they didn’t have to go to the nurse during class and they didn’t have to be the different one.”

Now, Mark has been accepted into the camp’s leadership-in-training program and hopes to someday serve as a camp counselor. He said he’d tell other kids thinking about applying that they should know that they aren’t alone, and that everyone at the camp is very friendly.

“It was probably the best experience I ever had,” he said.

For more information on Camp Nejeda, visit www.campnejeda.org. To learn more about the scholarship or to donate to help a young person attend the camp, call the Lourdes Diabetes Center at (607) 772-6269. Donations can be sent to 169 Riverside Dr., Binghamton, N.Y. 13905.

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