Beyond the Mainstream


Camp Ho Mita Koda

Newbury, Ohio

Sessions: Summer, seven weeks

Cost: $350 for a five-day session, $750 for a 12-day session

Ohio may be known as a place where presidential candidates clash, but it's also home to a camp that fights another type of conflict. The place is Camp Ho Mita Koda, and the battle is against diabetes.

Founded in scenic Newbury, Ohio, less than an hour east of Cleveland, the camp recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. "We are one of the first two camps for children with diabetes in the world," says Executive Director Jacquie Dickinson.

Dr. Henry John, who was chosen to distribute the newly developed medicine, insulin, started the 73-acre wooded camp in 1929. Since that day, the mission, purpose and values have remained the same.

The mission is not only to medically manage those with type 1 diabetes (the camp also offers a 5-day session for children with type 2 diabetes), but they also purpose to provide a haven of networking and relationship building within a traditional camp experience.

It happens seven weeks throughout the summer, when children ages 6 through 15 can partake in a 5-day or 12-day residential session. The children attend in sessions grouped by age, and while at camp they are bunked with seven other campers and two counselors, all the children and many of the staff with diabetes.

The One-Day Difference

Providing one-day mini-camps has been an idea developed by the staff to reach out and educate parents of young children who have been diagnosed with diabetes.

Children ages three through ten and their parents are invited to attend this all-day Saturday event complete with games, swimming, scavenger hunt, nature walk and an evening campfire. "The mini-camp took off almost immediately as soon as we introduced it six years ago," Dickinson says.

During the mini-camp, a physician orientates parents about the camp's medical program and discusses any issues about the illness.

The oftentimes-bewildered parents thrive from being able to meet with the medical staff and get acquainted with the camp.

Other invaluable benefits include being able to attend parent discussion groups and network with other families who are going through similar experiences.

Last summer, 63 children with their parents attended one of the two mini-camps that were offered. Dickinson adds, "We hope this one day experience eases both the parents' and the children's transition into residence camp."

Medical Management

The medical aspect of Camp Ho Mita Koda is a program within itself that is very strong and very important. Due to the severity of the needs, the most modern and equipped building on site is the dispensary, paid for entirely by a capital campaign several years ago.

The senior medical staff is comprised of 12 physicians, from major medical institutions located throughout the Cleveland area, all who are pediatric or diabetes specialists.

They are on call, make rounds every evening, and supervise the residence camp doctors who are resident physicians.

Also on staff is a camp health manager who is responsible for the dispensary staff of several nurses or nursing students.

It helps that the camp medical director is the head of pediatric endocrinology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and assists the camp by meeting regularly with the medical workforce during the year to discuss policies, issues and staffing.

Other medical assets are pharmaceutical and medical supply companies who contribute supplies, equipment, and insulin.

The generous donations from these health professionals keep the medical component of Camp Ho Mita Koda first-rate.

All together with the medical staff, counseling staff, administration and support, there is better than a 1-to-4 adult to child ratio. And the kids are in good hands.

Besides many of the staff having been campers themselves, they are trained by the senior medical personnel to be familiar with the care and management of diabetes.

A registered dietitian is also included in the staff training, as well as instruction about how to handle crisis situations. In each cabin is an emergency phone should medical or nursing care be needed any hour of the night. There is someone available at the dispensary around the clock, and the camp doctor is also on call if needed.

Recognizing Needs

"When the camp was first founded 75 years ago, shortly after insulin was discovered, it was essential because these children were virtually invalids," states Dickinson. "Before the discovery of insulin, type I diabetes in children was fatal, and they could not be taken to mainstream camps. Now you would not know these kids have this serious illness."

For a camp that would have a diabetic child attending, Dickinson advises, "Be aware of the situation, have someone on staff able to recognize the signs of trouble, create a tolerant environment by making sure the other kids in his cabin know this child has diabetes, and to be aware that the child will have to test his blood sugar, take shots and in other ways manage his illness, but that in no other way does diabetes make this child different from any other.”

Although it may be easier now to mainstream children with diabetes, the disease is still serious and can have life threatening emergencies or long-term complications, especially if not managed properly.

Consequently, one of the specialties of this specialized camp is for children to grow in their knowledge and care of the condition they carry.

Dickinson adds, "In an informal way we try to provide diabetes education and to motivate them to manage their disease effectively."

Most of the time this valuable practice leads to improved self-care and independence. As a result of a couple of years at Camp Ho Mita Koda's program, some parents have gained enough confidence for their child to attend other camps, although the networking with kids who are going through like issues is the one aspect that other camps may not provide. Having to take shots several times a day, eating regular snacks, and avoiding certain popular kid foods are just a few of the ways they may feel different.

To cross paths with peers who are dealing with similar life situations is a central characteristic of this camp's culture.

A child with the relatively rare type 1 diabetes may feel different in normal everyday life, so getting to spend a couple weeks each summer with other kids and counselors who have the illness helps them realize that they are not alone.

"When they come to camp here they can leave behind their medical alert bracelet because everyone has diabetes, so it's less of an issue," Dickinson points out.

Therefore it goes both ways. Some kids develop independence because of the camp and go on to mainstream programs, while others really like the idea of being with kids who have diabetes and they return year after year.

Most campers come from northeastern Ohio resulting from physician referrals, or from parent to parent contacts, while others attending from all over the world may have discovered the camp online.

No commercial recruiting is done as they operate as a non-profit organization. Therefore, the primary support of the camp comes from private donations allowing the fees to be subsidized and significantly reduced by up to 30 percent through an extensive Campership Program.

Looking back over her 14-year tenure, Dickinson has seen the residence camp grow from 121 attendees in 1991 to over 276 last summer.

Dickinson gives her camp director a lot of credit for the recent growth. Although he is a seasonal employee, Richard Humphreys' experience seems unlimited. He is a professional storyteller, a nature expert, an experienced program director, and he happens to also have diabetes. In his non-camping months, he owns a countryside nature facility and guides children's school groups.

His energy and excitement has reenergized the camp. "The kids go back to their doctor and talk about what fun they had at camp, so the doctor is more likely to refer more kids -- it kind of exploded," says Dickinson.

Humphreys was diagnosed with diabetes 48 years ago at age 15. He believes in living a full life and will demonstrate how he prevailed over diabetes with a 380-mile walk from Camp Ho Mita Koda to Lancaster, Pa.

The trek is scheduled to take place following an annual camp fundraiser and adult party called "Backpack Bivouac" in August of 2005. Humphreys has taken on this endeavor independent of his camp position, though he will be asking for sponsorships to raise funds for a new camp tennis court. His progress will be charted on the camp's Web site.


Camp Ho Mita Koda is ambitious about opportunities to overcome obstacles. For instance, the newly developed ropes course with climbing wall is used to show the children that they can rise above their individual circumstances.

When asked about obstacles she faces as the executive director, Dickinson did not hesitate to refer to the facilities that date back to the 1930s.

The perpetual struggle of renovation and upkeep require capital campaigns every several years. Many infrastructural amenities had to be replaced including the septic system and bathhouse. Other traditional amenities that require constant maintenance include a lake, swimming pool, dining hall, a covered recreation pavilion and eight camper cabins.

To facilitate faithful fundraising, the leadership developed an "Adopt-a-Cabin" program asking private donors to contribute funds to update a selected cabin, give an annual gift to maintain that cabin for five years, then give it a name. Excitedly she says, "Over a three year period we were able to renovate all of our original camper cabins."

Looking for more ways to engage teenagers is another area that Dickinson and her team are looking to improve upon. "Being a teenager with diabetes is difficult," she says.

While counselors in training and junior counselors are teenagers, another effort to acclimate the adolescents is the Bicycle Adventure Trip that was started a few years ago. The camp enlists the teenagers and a chaperoning physician, then partners together with the Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure, which leads the weeklong excursion.

Another engaging idea was a teen focus group of four campers who were put together last year in an attempt to gain ideas. As a result of the weekend brainstorming session, many activities were scheduled for their age group throughout the off-season. These events, facilitated by the camp director, serve as a type of support group for diabetic teens.

Running this special needs camp is not any different than most camps when speaking of administrative regulations. Members of the board serve on a Program and Quality Assurance Committee to make sure that the camp is complying with all necessary laws, and to maintain ACA accreditation. This committee is responsible to oversee everything from testing the water, to getting current staff fingerprinted.

As a partnership opportunity, the leadership at Camp Ho Mita Koda has an agreement and symbiotic relationship with the Diabetes Association of Greater Cleveland.

The association gives the staff year-round office space and is a primary supporter, while in turn the camp provides an ideal forum for the association’s services to children and families affected by diabetes.

David Willingham , a.k.a. Willy Dee, is a freelance writer who lives in Kerrville, Texas. He has extensive experience as a youth camp director, ministry consultant, and area network coordinator.

Bryan BuchkoComment