By Erica Hensley
MS Center for Investigative Reporting
Amid alarming increases in Type 2 diabetes among children, evidence suggests pre-diabetic kids are falling through the cracks when it comes to prevention efforts.
Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, a part of the diabetes belt, is one of the largest pediatric hospital systems in the nation. It has seen growing rates of Type 2 diabetes diagnoses over the past few years – up from 80 kids in 2019, to 140 in 2020, and it’s already surpassed 2020 numbers through just July of this year. While the increases are across more than 1 million pediatric patients, the trend concerns experts.
Children’s has an entire, growing department devoted to youth prevention and management. Its week-long summer sleep-away camp, Strong 4 Life, just completed an 11th year helping 60 kids – many who have Type 2 diabetes – with different weight issues focus on prevention and wellness.
Camp staff describe it as a “normal summer camp” that weaves in health and wellness strategies and confidence-boosting activities.
A nurse of 24 years, Amy Thomas struggled with obesity as a child and only in adulthood was able to get to a healthy weight through diet and exercise, she says. Now as camp nurse, she says, in addition to teaching life skills that focus on healthy lifestyles, her main drive is to help campers have a normal summer experience to boost their self-confidence.
“I immediately connected to them on a personal level,” Thomas said. “That was me as a kid, being self-conscious and called names. I know what those kids were experiencing, but we just reinforce that no matter where they are with their weight, they can still be active.”
Many campers were afraid to try new outdoor activities, like biking or boating, because they were afraid – or had been told by family or bullies – that they were too heavy to partake.
“One of those things that we do so much at camp is constant cheering and telling them that they did a great job, even if they were going to go on the paddle boats but they were afraid the boats would sink because they were told they were too heavy to get in a boat,” she said.
“Even if they just sat on the dock and put their feet in the water – the counselors and the nurses, they’re just active cheerleaders for these kids.” She adds that much of her camp duties comes down to basic first aid – many of the campers have never been active or don’t have properly fitting exercise clothes or shoes, so blisters, bruises, and bug bites are new and frequent calamities.
Strong 4 Life is markedly different from the “weight loss camps” that haunt many Gen Xers’ and Millenials’ childhood memories. This camp also offers sliding scale fees and scholarships for families that need financial help.
And the camp’s approach tends to work. According to Strong 4 Life’s 2019 survey data: 90%-plus of campers learned they could excel at and looked forward to new activities, 93% could make a healthy snack at home, and 92% post-camp indicated they want to eat healthy foods.
Thomas remembers one camper who came back year after year. Her first camp, she was afraid to play any sport that required shorts because she was embarrassed of her legs. After a year of reinforced self-confidence and practice, by the time she came back the next year, she ran up to Thomas proclaiming not only had she gone out for school soccer, she made the team and was scoring goals.
“She just was beaming,” Thomas recalls.
This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. It was also produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local news collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes MCIR, the Clarion Ledger, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, and Mississippi Today.