Type 2 diabetes used to be referred to as “adult onset diabetes” because it was almost unheard of in those under age 30. That was then, this is now, and Type 2 diabetes isn’t just for adults anymore. The number of youngsters with the condition has skyrocketed with Native American youth especially vulnerable.
“Based on a recent needs assessment, it was found that 40 percent of American Indian/Alaskan youth respondents reported diabetes, obesity, and hypertension,” according to Dr. Katie Carpenter, Diabetes Program Coordinator for Native Health in Phoenix, Arizona.
In an effort to stem that tide, Native Health presents an annual Living Well Traditionally Diabetes Prevention Youth Camp to provide the necessary tools for Native American youth (ages 10-12) to reduce the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
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“Pre- and post-test results show the Living Well Traditionally camp is successful at providing Native youth the education to believe they can prevent diabetes in their own lives—and this sense of empowerment is a key aspect in changing the way the future generation thinks about health and wellness,” Carpenter said. “Nearly all the youth who have attended these camps report not only having a better understanding of the disease itself, but two-thirds believe they received the information needed to prevent them from being diagnosed with diabetes.”
Good food and plenty of exercise in an outdoor environment are part of the camping experience at Mingus Mountain in Prescott Valley, Arizona. On more than 120 acres surrounded by the Prescott National Forest, Native American youth get to romp and play and burn off calories from May 30 to June 2. Fishing, hiking, and archery are on the activity list, along with traditional arts and crafts and instruction on the importance of proper nutrition.
“We took about 50 to camp last year and expect to host nearly 60 this year,” Carpenter said. With 20 counselors on hand, that’s about a three to one ratio of supervision of the campers, about 60 percent of whom are female, most of them from urban environments.
Because fishing is not an activity that guarantees success, outdoor games like volleyball, basketball, wiffle ball, and competitive archery are also offered. “We keep them busy and out in the fresh air as much as possible—no TV, no cell phones, no electronics,” Carpenter said.
Nutrition is stressed at every meal—three squares a day and two snacks to provide caloric input to balance those expended in the activities. “Many of our campers don’t have a lot of experience with outdoor activity, so taking them hiking ramps up the “I’m hungry” meter. Although it’s a camp environment with some kid food, like grilled cheese and burgers, we try to limit things that fall into the unhealthy food category and there’s a full salad bar available at every meal.”
Feedback from campers is almost universal like the 9-year-old from a recent getaway who wrote, “Thanks for sending me to camp. I loved it, especially the horseback riding and learning how to be healthy.”
The child’s mother went even further, writing: “My child came back from camp excited about the knowledge concerning exercise and healthy eating. She brought home books she shared with the family regarding vegetables. She also talked about healthy snacks we can eat instead of junk food and exercises we can do as a family and the fact that watching TV and playing video games all day was unhealthy.”
“Our campers tend to take what we teach them to heart,” Carpenter said. “They take home their newfound knowledge and teach their families just how much sugar there is in a soda and how to shop smarter to stay healthier.
“Over the past 15 years through these diabetes prevention youth camps, we’ve been able to get the healthy lifestyle message out to more than 1,300 Native American youth. We’re hoping that message gets shared with others and will help us make progress in decreasing Type 2 diabetes in the Native American population.”