Toting pillows, sleeping bags and stuffed animals, hundreds of children anxiously lined up Sunday to check in for overnight camp along the St. Croix River.
Packing lists for Camp Needlepoint were filled out with insulin pumps, glucose monitors and other vital tools to manage their shared disease: diabetes.
The unique sleepaway camp put on by the American Diabetes Association is one of the largest and oldest of its kind. Its goals are simple: Provide an escape for children while introducing them to peers also coping with the chronic condition.
"It's a good chance for him to not always be the odd kid out, the only kid who's got to deal with diabetes,” said Kim Breimeier, whose son, Calvin, was back for a second year at Needlepoint. “It's nice for him to get a break from us and just get to be a normal kid for once."
Calvin, 10, wasn’t sure what to think when his parents — at the advice of his doctor — drove him from Ely, Minn., to Hudson, Wis., last year for a week away.
His apprehension soon wore off as he found freedom to cut loose. He was instantly at ease to find others like him, and couldn’t stop talking on the drive home about the “predator and prey” game of tag he took up with fellow campers. So when his parents asked about a return trip, he didn’t hesitate.
“Not at all,” he said. “I just seem to enjoy it a lot more than any other activities that I’ve done.”
Named after the daily insulin injections many diabetics require and the towering pines all around, Camp Needlepoint plays out on a YMCA campground that the diabetes association rents out for two weeks each summer. There’s also an associated day camp for younger children, many of whom graduate to the overnight program before long.
Over two weeks, about 500 children will come to the camps. Most are from Minnesota and Wisconsin, but some travel from as far away as New York and Alaska.
The $1,400 weekly cost for the overnight camp is subsidized for many families through full or partial scholarships.
Camp Needlepoint director Becky Barnett said the program was established in 1957 by a St. Paul man, Ron Youngquist.
“As a child he was diagnosed with diabetes at age 11 and was never allowed to go to camp because he was too much of a medical liability,” she said. “So his dream, his goal was one day to start a camp for kids with diabetes.”
Taylor Andersen-Beaver, 25, is going on 20 years at the camp — first as a camper, then a counselor and now as one of the main staff members.
“There wasn’t anyone else with Type 1 in my elementary school, middle school or high school, so coming here was the only time where I got to see other kids that had the same thing as I did,” Andersen-Beaver said.
The balance, she said, is to tap into that shared situation without making it the sole focus. The camp offers opportunities for rock climbing, nature hikes, archery, canoeing, flashlight tag and more.
“Because of all of our medical staff and counselors that know diabetes and know everything that’s going on, these kids have that ability to be ‘normal kids’ for a week where they can just run around and do activities like every other kid at camp,” she said.
Of course, there are special touches. Some camp games put fun into the routine task of checking blood sugar. Songs do, too.
“Put some glucose on it. Put some glucose on it. Get low, get low, put some glucose on it. Get a meter with it, put some blood on it,” is one tune counselors were rehearsing before this year’s camp opened.
There were 21 children the first year the camp was held. For the hundreds who attend now, it’s hard to overstate the level of preparation for today’s camps.
Barnett watched Friday as counselors hauled in box after box of medical supplies — hundreds of testing meters, syringes and 21,000 glucose tablets to help people with sudden dips in blood sugar.
“That should hopefully get us through the two weeks,” Barnett said. “We run out every year.”
But few supplies are as critical as the donated insulin. “Especially in this day and age where insulin is so costly,” Barnett said.
Medical staff are there around the clock and volunteer their time.
“They often joke with us that we’re often more medically staffed here than the Hudson hospital,” Barnett said. “Because we do have pediatric endos, we have residents, we have nurses, dieticians, certified diabetes educators. It takes a lot to put it all together but obviously very worth it.”
Familiarity with diabetes is a must for the counselors who will be with the campers most often during the week. Almost all of them are diabetic.
Seventeen-year-old Kayla Schwinghamer is a counselor in training this year after having spent many years as a camper.
“If a kid goes low you know how to handle it. If they’re high you know how to handle it. Some kids are a little bit scared to even tell you they are low,” she said. “Being a diabetic you can just see it, looking at them, that they might be feeling off or their blood sugars are off.”
Schwinghamer said recognizing telltale signs helps keep everything calm.
“You can tell them to test and then you can correct it from there,” she said. "And you know how to do it because you’ve been dealing with it yourself.”
Fellow counselor in training Sabine Karall remembered the sense of comfort that greeted her first trip to camp 11 years ago.
“I always thought I was the only diabetic in the world, and then I showed up here and was like, ‘Whoa!’ And it’s just great.”
Now, she’s got lifelong Needlepoint friends and makes more each August.
“We’re the diabetes family. We’re all the same,” Karall said. “We all love each other no matter what, even if you’re homesick.”
On check-in day, Chelsie Staydohar stood close to her mother as the line formed. The shy 9-year-old from Bovey, Minn., is a Needlepoint rookie and staying for only part of the week.
“I’m nervous a little,” Chelsie said, adding she was most looking forward to the arts and crafts time.
Her mom, Lindsey Staydohar, said she contemplated staying nearby just in case her daughter got homesick, but decided not to.
“She’s spent the night away from home before but just not at camp before, so this will be something new and cool and fun,” Staydohar said.
But even before going in, Chelsie was thinking ahead.
“She already said she’s coming back next year,” her mom said.
Chelsie simply smiled.