The Type 1 behind Camp Diabetable

Ernest Groenewald tells us about his diabetes journey and how he was inspired to start Camp Diabetable.

Ernest Groenewald (26) lives in Hogsback, a village in the Amathole Mountains in the Eastern Cape. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of six.

Diabetic journey

I was diagnosed at the age of six and found it very difficult to adapt. One day I was just a normal kid, enjoying life and all the sweet goodies it had to offer, and overnight I had this illness that, not realising at the time, would change my life forever. Whether it would be for the good or the bad, I had yet to find out.

My journey with diabetes started rough, as would be expected with any child diagnosed at such a young age. My family was very supportive and tried to encourage me, emphasizing that the injections I had to receive and finger pricking to test my glucose levels was all for my own good.

In reality, it was quite a traumatising experience to endure at such a young age. My family was forced to change my lifestyle. At first, I would put up a fight with everything. When it was time for an injection or to have my finger pricked, I would run away or hide, to try to escape being hurt. My family had to pin me down to administer my injections. I really hated this new reality that was staring me point-blank in the face. I really felt punished and could not understand.

“Why me?” was the question I constantly asked myself. I would cry and ask my mom what I did to deserve this punishment. I was not able to go to friends’ birthday parties, because my mom was overprotective and too scared that I would eat something that might cause my glucose levels to spike, and that I would end up in hospital.

Change in treating doctor

It took me a long time to actually accept my new reality and to come to peace with how I would have to live my life going forward. I went through all the stages of denial, anger, and rebellion. With time, I realised and accepted that having diabetes was not a punishment. It was an illness that can be managed, with the possibility of living a life like any other person, but the key point is that you must manage your diabetes.

When we moved to Port Elizabeth, in 2009, I needed a new physician specialising in diabetes. This is when I was introduced to Dr Podgorski and sister Hannie Williams, the diabetic nurse. Dr Podgorski is a very strict doctor but has a real passion for diabetes and cares a lot about his patients. We spoke about moving from insulin injections to using an insulin pump, but I could never afford it. This year I was lucky enough with the help of my partner to be able to afford an insulin pump and it has changed my life dramatically.

Longing to go to a diabetes youth camp

Growing up I ended up missing out on a lot of childhood fun, like diabetes youth camps, because my mom wanted to keep me safe and healthy, but also because we moved a lot, and our finances did not allow for me to attend these camps.

Years ago, I dreamt of hosting a diabetic camp, but my work life was hectic and made it impossible (I’m a practice administrator at Hogsback Medical Practice and also run a self-catering unit).

At the beginning of last year, I decided to organise a camp, but COVID hit and put a temporary pause on my plans. This year I went through a rough time due to personal issues and having COVID. My partner encouraged me to do something more constructive and to focus on my passion.

I struggled a lot coming up with ideas about what I could do until it hit me that I still wanted to do a camp for Type 1 diabetic kids. I phoned Sister Hannie and she gave me the contact details for DSA Young Guns, that is how I met Paula Thom. We immediately clicked, and Paula told me that there has not been a diabetes youth camp in the Eastern Cape since 2005. This showed me that there is a need to do this camp.

Camp Diabetable

We first had to come up with a name. We really wanted this camp to be special so that it could mean something to the kids and the words camp and diabetes kept playing in my head. I was thinking about how I want to show the kids that the struggles of living with diabetes are beatable and that is when it hit me, Camp Diabetable. Immediately, I called Paula and she loved the name.

Diabetes South Africa (DSA) has truly welcomed me and with the help of Paula Thom, from DSA Young Guns, and Megan Soanes, from DSA Denim for Diabetes, we made the dream of this camp a reality. The arrangements so far have been an absolute pleasure as they have been my right and left-hand women supporting me from day one.

All that was left was to find the right venue and time. We decided to support a local organisation in Hogsback, Hobbiton; it’s an NGO that hosts camps for schools and other groups, and so the journey of organising a camp began.

Camp info

Camp Diabetable will take place from 13-15 August 2021. This camp welcomes children with Type 1 diabetes from ages six to 16 years. Camp fees are R1 324 per child, which includes food and accommodation as well as all the activities for the whole weekend. We encourage parents and siblings to join as well.

Two doctors will be assisting with the camp and help with diabetes education as well as workshops for the parents. The focus will be on routinely monitoring each of the campers’ glucose levels, making sure that they are well controlled.

Campers will be able to participate in various fun activities that Hobbiton offers, like abseiling, rope course challenges and forest hikes, to just name a few.

The goal of the camp is to show children with Type 1 diabetes that living with diabetes doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy life, and, most of all, that they can follow their dreams without limits.

We hope that the camp will not only help to educate the children, but also help build confidence within the management of their illness and the administration of their own treatment. We hope to open their eyes to see a bright future without ‘doom and gloom’, but with a light of hope.

Camp Diabetable wants to show that the struggles of living with diabetes are beatable and that we can fight for our future. My dream is to extend Camp Diabetable nationally, but for now, we are working hard on making this camp a success.