Sitting on the bleachers at the Westside Family YMCA, children slather on sunscreen and bug spray as they prepare to warm up before breaking into teams to play soccer.

Their excitement increases when camp counselors announce that the winning teams will receive their own soccer balls to take home. Counselors remind the campers to have fun and remember why they’re at camp.

“Why are we all here?” the counselor asks. The children respond in unison: “Diabetes!”

The boys and girls, ages 10-14, were all sizes and ethnicities, representative of San Antonio’s diverse population. What they all have in common: They are at high risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. Their participation in Camp PowerUp, a weeklong day camp sponsored  by the American Diabetes Association, was designed to short-circuit that risk by educating the children and their families about diabetes, nutrition, obesity prevention, and the importance of physical activity. During the week, the 50 campers played games, sampled healthy foods, and learned about good nutrition through interactive activities.

Signs for the American Diabetes Association camp are displayed outside of the Westside Family YMCA.
The Westside Family YMCA hosts the American Diabetes Association’s Camp PowerUp. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Diabetes is the sixth-leading cause of death in Texas and the fourth-leading cause of death in Bexar County. Type 2 diabetes is largely preventable, yet it accounts for nearly 95% of all diabetes diagnoses in the United States.

The Westside of San Antonio has one of the highest diabetes rates in the nation, and 113,009 Bexar County residents have been diagnosed with the disease – nearly 12% of the population. Faced with these daunting statistics, local and national community organizations have doubled down on efforts to target the epidemic.

Now in its third year, the Camp PowerUp program began in San Antonio and has since expanded to 10 camps in cities nationwide, including Chicago, New Orleans, and Memphis, Tenn. Free to all participants, the camp is co-sponsored by UT Health San Antonio and the Texas Diabetes Institute.

Caroline Blanco, director of community health strategies with the American Diabetes Association, told the Rivard Report that the program is successful because children and families work together with a medical team to learn how to prevent and manage diabetes symptoms.

Referred to the camp by their primary care physicians, the children already have been identified as having risk factors such has high cholesterol, high liver enzymes, or a body mass index greater than the 95th percentile. Some have been diagnosed as pre-diabetic or have a diabetic parent or grandparent.

The hands-on experience is intended to motivate participants to become healthier and more active.

“You could easily give someone a brochure talking about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle,” Blanco said, “but when you show them techniques, ways to make meals and snacks, [and ways to] be physically active, it encourages them.”

The campers spent their days mixing fun with education. They learned about reasonable meal and snack portions, mindful eating, the importance of sleep to good health, and how to read food labels. Activities included yoga, swimming, soccer, a trip to the Witte Museum for the H-E-B Body Adventure exhibit, and a visit to the University of the Incarnate Word nutrition food lab.

Freddy Sanchez, a 14-year-old returning camper, attends school at the Advanced Learning Academy. One of the most meaningful activities for him was learning how much sugar was in a bottle of soda.

“We got sodas and read the label to find out how much sugar was in there, and then did the math to find out how many packets would be in there – and it was kind of cool to see that,” Sanchez said.

What did he learn? There are the equivalent of 17 packets of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper.

Esteban Gonzalez, 16, is a Fox Tech High School student and a Camp PowerUp counselor in training. A previous camp participant, he now works with campers, encouraging them to join in the physical activities and learn as much as they can during the program. Gonzalez said last summer’s camp helped him make significant changes to improve his health.

“I’ve learned how to eat healthy, choose better options, and [reduce my] portions,” he said.

While he has taken what he learned and implemented it, Gonzalez said getting his family to go along with his lifestyle changes was more difficult.

“I try to convince my family [to be healthier], but they are pretty hard-headed,” he said.

Still, what he learned at Camp PowerUp helped give him the confidence to stick to what he knows is best for his health, despite challenges.

“I’ve started working out and improved my athleticism, and I am doing great now,” Gonzalez said.

In a county where one in three children are overweight or obese, an important component to preventing Type 2 diabetes in youth is parent education and involvement. As much as biological family history can be a risk factor, a family’s culture and habits also play a large role.

To reinforce what PowerUp campers have learned, each day ended with a session for their parents, in which they were taught what their children learned that day in order to help the entire family adopt healthier habits. Parents were required to attend at least two sessions.

Kevin Guzman’s two children, 12-year-old Arianna and 10-year-old Devin, participated in Camp PowerUp for the first time this year. As a professional chef, Guzman said that he understands the importance of a healthy, balanced diet.

“I try to eat healthy, but my kids don’t like to,” he said. “This gives them the opportunity to try different things without me having to force it on them.”

Dr. Nila Escaname, a pediatric endocrinologist with the Texas Diabetes Institute, said giving children the opportunity to participate in healthy activities and learning outside of their usual environment is key.

“What we try to emphasize is to try new things, try new foods, [and] try new exercises,” Escaname said.

Just as they encourage campers to try new things, the camp has integrated new activities that research indicates may be beneficial for maintaining a healthy weight.

“This year for the first time we have incorporated mindfulness activities and yoga – something new that they may not have been introduced to,” Escaname said.

And parents agree that trying new things is working.

Guzman said he believes that the camp is providing his children the opportunity to broaden their horizons toward health, be active, and interact with others.

“They are having fun and learning,” he said. “They even liked a few new foods they tried at lunch.”

Campers hold up peeled tangerines during a session on mindful eating at Camp PowerUp.
Campers hold up peeled mandarins during a session on mindful eating at Camp PowerUp. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Simply losing weight was not the camp’s goal. Rather, it’s for the children to gain the tools for making changes to their lifestyle. Staff at Camp PowerUp focus on educating about the disease and how to prevent it, and showing participants resources in the community so they can maintain healthy habits.

“We are trying to come up with sustainability because [camp is only] one week and we can only do so much,” Escaname said.

To help participants keep a long-term focus on health, families who participate in camp are offered free memberships to local YMCAs.

To participate in CampPower Up in 2018, contact your child’s primary care physician for a referral. For more information about the camp, click here.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.