At 19 years old, Kris Freeman had just left a full scholarship for cross-country skiing at the University of Vermont to train for his first Olympic games when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and told he’d never compete at the Olympic level.
More than 15 years later, Freeman has competed in more than 200 professional races, including four Winter Olympics.
“It’s a hard thing to go through, but I never let it stop me from what I had to do, and I overcame it,” he said.
Each summer, Freeman travels to different camps across the country with Eli Lilly and Company, sharing his story with children living with Type 1 diabetes and encouraging them to not let the disease keep them from dreaming.
Last week, he visited Camp Bluebonnet, a diabetes summer camp for children in Central Texas, held at Peaceable Kingdom Retreat for Children in Killeen.
“I think a lot of obstacles are ones that misinformed people put in front of kids. They say, ‘You can’t do this because you have diabetes,’ and that’s never true,” Freeman said.
“I’m not telling these kids to go out and do stuff without taking care of themselves. Taking care of themselves is the first part, but do that, then nothing has to stand in their way.”
For recent Copperas Cove High School graduate Cassidy Lapierre, 17, Type 1 diabetes is a normal part of life.
Lapierre was diagnosed before the age of 2.
“It’s just kind of another part of my day I have to do, like eating, sleeping and brushing my teeth,” she said.
Despite the daily hassle, Lapierre participated in the marching band at school, and said she never lets diabetes keep her from pursuing anything.
She plans to attend Texas State University this fall, and hopes to be a screenwriter one day.
For Lapierre and the other campers, a week together each summer reminds them they aren’t alone. The camp is staffed by a volunteer committee, committed to encouraging the kids to keep going.
“Diabetes is challenging, and it’s relentless. You never get a break. You have to deal with it 24/7. These kids get tired of it, and they get frustrated with it, and a lot of them give up,” said Amy Wallquist, volunteer president of Children’s Diabetes Camp of Central Texas, the nonprofit foundation that funds Camp Bluebonnet.
“That’s why it’s really important to have camps like this, in general. It’s kind of like a booster shot,” she added.
Dr. Matthew Stephen, pediatric endocrinologist at McLane Children’s Hospital in Temple and medical director at Camp Bluebonnet, knows from personal experience what it’s like to be a kid with Type 1 diabetes.
Stephen was diagnosed at age 8, and said the disease is life-changing for children, as well as their families.
“Kids are used to a life that’s pretty care-free, but whenever diabetes enters the picture, you have to be a whole lot more attentive to their needs. Our goals when we take care of children with diabetes are to try to limit the impact of diabetes on them and their families,” he said.
Despite all of the challenges, Stephen is hopeful about the future for children with Type 1 diabetes.
“It’s not by any means easy, but certainly it’s doable, and certainly the care and technology that we have really allow a lot of people to live healthy, full, productive lives,” he said.