Imagine if a child in your life had a chronic disease that required management 24 hours a day to avoid risk of life-threatening complications such as a coma, heart disease, kidney failure or blindness. Children with type 1 diabetes (T1D) and their families must learn how to check blood sugar, count carbohydrates, dose insulin and adjust for physical activity in order to survive.
Twenty years ago, a dozen visionaries – parents, doctors, health professionals and community leaders including Alex and Dr. William Allen and Dr. Steve Anderson – decided that “until there’s a cure there’s camp.” They started Camp Kudzu to provide an immersive setting for children and teens to learn life skills, develop self-esteem, find community, and gain a sense of independence. To celebrate this milestone, Camp Kudzu will host families, volunteers, medical teams, supporters, and friends at The Stave Room at American Spirit Works on Saturday, Dec. 7.
“The first summer we served less than 100 kids. And now 20 years later we serve over 900 kids. It’s our goal that every child with type 1 diabetes in Georgia has an opportunity to experience the magic of camp. That’s what we’ll be doing at our 20th celebration, trying to raise more money to send more kids to camp,” said Jennifer Odom, parent of a daughter with type 1, former board chair and 20th Anniversary event co-chair.
Thanks to donors and corporate partners, Camp Kudzu currently subsidizes 75 percent of the cost of overnight summer camp and provides scholarships to more than 40 percent of campers. Access to this resource is a lifeline to insulin dependent children.
“What distinguishes Camp Kudzu is that we are a ‘now’ organization focused on building that community, that support network and educating and empowering those children and youth to thrive with type 1 diabetes,” said Camp Kudzu executive director Rob Shaw.
Camp Kudzu programming happens year-round at various locations. Summer programs include weeklong overnight camps for children ages 8-18 and a weeklong day camp for children ages 5-9. Every fall and spring, families with newly diagnosed children are welcomed to a weekend Family Camp. And a winter teen retreat weekend focuses on life transitions – from childhood to adolescence and then on to adulthood.
Anna Rambo, camper turned volunteer turned program manager, has lived with type 1 diabetes for more than 20 years and been involved with Camp Kudzu almost as long.
“We say it’s the happiest place on earth and our favorite week of the year. I think I can speak for most of our campers and volunteers –we look forward to being with others like us, living with the same struggles and experiences and connecting on that level,” Rambo said.
Rambo’s parents say that after her first week of camp, she told them she would happily stay there. In a way she has.
“Camp Kudzu has given me an avenue to make a difference and give back. To talk to newly diagnosed children and say I’ve been doing this for 20 years – here’s all of these people who’ve also been doing it – you are going to be fine. Lean on us. Ask for advice. Vent to us. You can do anything. Type 1 diabetes doesn’t have to stop you,” Rambo said.
The Odom family have also stayed involved to build the Kudzu community.
“Camp Kudzu has been a support for our family, meeting other parents of kids with type 1 and a great support system for Emily [diagnosed at age 4 on Valentine’s Day in 2007]. She lives for camp. As soon as summer camp ends she counts down the seconds to the teen retreat,” Odom said.
At Camp Kudzu, the volunteers are as enthusiastic as the campers.
“We could not produce camp without 650 volunteers every year. That’s really the heart of the organization. An important part of our organization is growing from within as a result of campers graduating from our leadership program, which includes our Counselors in Training (CIT) to Junior Counselors. We still have a great need from the medical community and others with experience or energy. We welcome you,” Shaw said.
So, what’s next? Shaw along with staff, volunteers and supporters are eager to expand Camp Kudzu’s reach across Georgia until every kid with type 1 diabetes can experience the magic of camp.
“Camp is more than just fun. Camp is really important to the mental and physical well-being for our children. They really should get a prescription to go to camp,” Odom said.
Learn more at campkudzu.org.
Be sure to listen to our special INtown Insider podcast about Camp Kudzu at this link.