Camp Sweeney, Gainesville, Texas: When endocrinologist James Shirley Sweeney of Gainesville, Texas, opened the doors to Camp Sweeney in 1950, he knew he wanted to provide a recreational outlet for children with diabetes; it’s unlikely he could have foreseen what his humble idea has grown into nearly 70 years later, let alone the changes in medical science that have altered the lives of the thousands of kids he has helped.
At a glance, Camp Sweeney looks like a typical summer camp: Set upon 400 acres of land with mature trees, a large lake and green grass stretching to the distance, swarming with kids doing crafts, water sports, dances and talent shows. If you spend a little time there, you’ll notice there’s one key difference, one that makes its campers feel safe and at home like no other place. In-depth type 1 diabetes education and around-the-clock testing and monitoring conducted by medically trained staff.
In 1950, when the camp was founded, many children with type 1 diabetes weren’t expected to live to adulthood. Synthetic insulin had yet to be developed and that first summer 60 kids attended the camp for an experience that would define their young lives.
“Synthetic insulin revolutionized the prognosis for children with type 1 diabetes — in the beginning the prognosis was poor and ended up in death before adulthood,” said Billie Hood, business manager of the camp. “Dr. Sweeney wanted a place where kids could be kids again, so he got together with investors and oil barons and created the Southwestern Diabetic Foundation with the sole purpose to fund Camp Sweeney.”
Today, Camp Sweeney—and the entire diabetes world—is far different.
In 2019, the camp hosted 720 kids, from thirty-five states and five countries. People with diabetes live long, full lives, and camp is more about giving kids with the disease a place to totally be themselves, rather than a singular experience to take with them on their short journeys.
There are three camp sessions offered per summer, and current Camp Director Dr. Ernie Fernandez hasn’t missed a day of camp in the thirty-five years he’s volunteered. A pediatrician with his own practice in Dallas, Dr. Fernandez says that half of the campers utilize scholarships to fund their session, though you’d never be able to tell the difference between those on scholarships and those who paid their own way.
“Foster kids come free, too,” said Dr. Fernandez. “That’s the beauty of what we do. It’s the same struggle with diabetes whether you’re rich or poor.”
When camp isn’t in session, the staff is on a search to add more members to the team—but they’re very specific in what they’re looking for.
“Many of our staff members are pre-med or have a social work background, but what we are looking for is a willingness to sacrifice for someone else,” said Dr. Fernandez. “These campers are waking their staff members throughout the night to do blood testing, so we need someone who is very sacrificial and wants to bring joy to others—and that’s what we try to inspire in the campers.”
During the summer, Dr. Fernandez sleeps at camp, leaving early each morning to see patients at his own clinic, only to return back at camp by 2:30 pm each afternoon.
“It’s tiring, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he says.
Outside the world of summer camp, there are people who don’t have or aren’t focused on diabetes. That’s not true of Camp Sweeney and what sets it apart, according to Hood.
“For three weeks, these kids feel like everybody is doing the same thing,” she said. “At school, they have to leave class to go to the nurse, and they have to integrate diabetes into their lives. There’s a sense of alienation. Here, everyone is on a meal plan, everyone tests their blood or wears an insulin pump.”
Today, Camp Sweeney provides more medical monitoring than it did during its early years.
“Studies show that if you can manage blood sugar on a constant in-range level you can reduce, reverse or even eliminate complications,” Hood said. “We’re not just changing the methods of caring for type 1 diabetes, but the thought process behind it.”
While the medical science has changed, the essential benefit of Camp Sweeney has persisted: the friendships made, and hope given.
Imogene Parker was one of the very first campers at Camp Sweeney in 1951. She is now a volunteer that speaks to the campers about her own life with type 1 diabetes.
“I’ve been a diabetic for over 71 years and they saved my life,” she said. “When I was a young child, the only person I knew with it was an older man, and everyone said that he was dying of diabetes. I thought I was going to die too, but they gave me hope that I could live—and I’m still here.”
Parker recently attended a 70th reunion for campers.
For parents of type 1 diabetic children, Camp Sweeney offers the assurance of 24-hour monitoring and access to hospital care, with an on-site hospital equipped to handle emergencies. Campers are trained to be diligent in checking their own blood sugar five-to-seven times daily, and more if necessary. Urine tests are conducted daily, and medical staff reviews test results prior to each meal to prescribe insulin dosages.
“We work one on one with them to gain insight into the things that give them anxiety. We teach them how to serve one another and identify the good that they possess within. They build real relationships based on sacrificing for one another, and when they go back to school they have learned how to build the relationships that pick them up when they fall- and they fall often,” Dr. Fernandez said, adding, “The only time these parents sleep is when their kids are at Camp Sweeney.”
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