Seven-year-old John Beaudette doesn't watch car racing on TV, but he was intently coloring a stripe on a model of Indy driver Charlie Kimball's Verizon series 83 car at Camp Discovery in Glen Ellyn last week.
"I like the race car," he said.
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John was among 51 kids ages 4 to 9 learning how to manage their Type 1 diabetes while having fun at the day camp at HealthTrack Sports Wellness. Kimball, the first race car driver with diabetes to win an IndyCar Series race, was there to help them build the race cars and encourage them with his own story.
"Being able to share my enthusiasm and passion for racing with these kids is very special," Kimball said. "It reminds them they can do anything -- even drive a race car -- with diabetes."
Abby Gits, 6, was at the camp for the second year in a row. She said she liked the people and had learned that, "when you get low (in blood sugar), you should eat or drink something."
Katie Mihelich of Lombard brought her daughter, Ava, 6, for the second year. After last year's camp, Ava asked to go on an insulin pump instead of receiving shots, she said.
"It (the camp) made a huge difference," she said. "One of the first things we did was sign her up for camp."
Ava's father, also diabetic, had attended diabetes camp when he was growing up, Mihelich said.
"He knew the camp had such a positive role for him, (and) it would have a positive role for Ava as well," Mihelich said.
The American Diabetes Association Northern Illinois Area has been offering diabetes camps for kids in the Chicago area for 65 years and for more than 20 years in the Western suburbs, said Suzanne Apsey, associate director-youth initiative. This year, the association is offering four day camps and two overnight camps that include 400 campers and 200 volunteers. The camps let the kids know they're not alone and offer support, education and inspiration. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler spoke at one of the recent camps, Apsey said.
"We're excited about the activity," she said. "The kids come to have fun. We're making sure they are learning something too."
Kimball to kids
Race car driver Kimball was there courtesy of Novo Nordisk, a Denmark-based pharmaceutical company that has been a leader in diabetes care. This year, Novo Nordisk launched the NovoLog Race with Insulin camp kit to educate about diabetes in an engaging and fresh way for young campers.
At Camp Discovery in Glen Ellyn, the kids attended an insulin education session, did crafts, had lunch, enjoyed a swim, put on pit crew hats and decorated models of Kimballs's Novo Nordisk Chip Gianessi race car. Before being handed their colored markers and stickers, they answered questions about diabetes.
A volunteer asked them, when you grow up -- even though you have diabetes -- could you be a teacher? Fireman? Policeman? Ballerina?
Kimball was there as testimony they could. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007 at the age of 22, the diagnosis threw an extra lap into his promising racing career.
"It was a huge surprise, I didn't know really what it meant," he said in an interview before the camp. "What it means is that you can still do what you want in your life. You may have to make some changes and make some adjustments."
After his diagnosis, Kimball quit the 2007 racing season early while learning to manage his disease. Like all Type 1 diabetics, Kimball is insulin dependent. He learned to monitor his blood sugar, inject insulin, keep himself hydrated and maintain a nutritional balance between his carbs and proteins. Within six months, he was back in the driver's seat, finishing his first race in the top three with a podium win. Last year, he placed first in Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.
"I got so much support from the diabetic community when I was diagnosed," he said. "I felt like it was a win for them as well."
Champion in life
Kimball said diabetes has made him a better athlete and more balanced person. He understands how to take care of his body and, win or lose, every race is a victory over his disease.
"I love racing more than I ever have because I thought I might never get back in a car. Each time is more special," he said.
Meeting with kids and parents in separate sessions, Kimball fielded questions. Kids inevitably ask him about racing, like how fast he travels and if he's ever crashed, he said. Drivers reach speeds of up to 235 miles per hour and average 225 mph during a lap.
"You go 100 yards, the length of a football field, every second," he said.
He has crashed, but his most serious injury has been a broken hand, he said.
"The safety of Indy cars now is so much better than it ever has been," he said.
Sometimes the kids ask questions that go beyond racing, Kimball said.
"There are a lot of times the kids ask poignant questions about diabetes management because it's something they live with as well," he said.
The parents also want to know how he manages his diabetes in a race car. A monitor attached to his body transfers data on his blood sugar level to a display on the steering wheel. Along with the water bottle that other race car drivers carry, Kimball has a bottle of orange juice just in case his blood sugar drops. So far, he's never had to use it, he said. He carries a pre-filled FlexPen, manufactured by Novo Nordisk, in his backpack so he can dial up the right amount of insulin when he needs to inject. Kimball said the FlexPen fits into his busy lifestyle but would not be for everyone.
"Diabetics management is not a one-size-fits-all," he said. "I still have good days and I still have bad days. I just try to focus on having more good days than bad days and making the bad days not so bad."
Overall, more than 29 million people in the United States have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Type 2 diabetics -- who often are diagnosed later in life -- often manage their disease without taking insulin. But people with either type of diabetes share a common interest whatever management method they use, Kimball said.
"The message (is) of overcoming the challenge and still living your dream," he said.
Kimball's own dreams include becoming the first driver with diabetes to win the Indy 500 and the IndyCar Series Championship. But even if that doesn't happen, he knows he's a winner.
"It feels good that I can make an impact without a helmet on," he said.