Local students learn realities of diabetes through I Challenge and Diabuddies

·5 min read

Chris Jarvis didn’t know where to turn when he was first diagnosed with diabetes.

A native of Grimsby, the Olympic rower was at a loss on how to tell his friends. It wasn’t a topic he was eager to talk about. He excused himself at lunchtime when he had to administer insulin. That all changed, however, when he entered university and a friend from his rowing team helped him become more comfortable on his own health journey.

He encouraged Chris to start taking his insulin in front of other people in the cafeteria, a move he concedes “might sound weird,” but it was a first step in both breaking down stigma and spurring a conversation.

It is a conversation he has continued as he has pursued excellence on the water, and it is a conversation he fosters at local schools – including Aurora’s Hartman Public School – as Founder & CEO of I Challenge Diabetes and its Diabuddies program.

“I have a passion for students who might be uncomfortable living with diabetes because I have been living with it for so long myself,” says Jarvis. “It was not until [that experience in university] that I stopped hiding in the bathroom stall with the shame of taking insulin and not wanting to scare people. Not everyone responds well to seeing a needle, but he felt so much more comfortable telling everybody, ‘If you’re nervous, look away. He should be taking insulin right here at the table where he is eating.’

“That changed my life and the way that I felt about myself and it is one of the core pieces on why I do it now.”I Challenge Diabetes (ICD) focuses on engaging and inspiring both people living with Type 1 diabetes, as well as their families, friends and peers. Their mission is to “not shy away from the tough questions” while “building the skills and courage to face whatever obstacles come our way.”

They recognize that everyone has their own starting point living with diabetes, but it doesn’t have to be a stumbling block.This is a reality known all too well by Mason Dos Anjos and his mom Miriam.Mason was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes from a young age and despite the challenges that he and his family live with every day, both Mason and Miriam have become advocates and ambassadors for ICD and the Diabuddies program, with Miriam stepping up to facilitate school visits – in person as health restrictions allow, as well as virtual programs.

“Miriam not only got me into her school but set up tours around the Southern Ontario area and we kept on connecting, meeting these students, and being able to make change in their classrooms,” says Chris of the Dos Anjos family, who recently visited Toronto’s Mount Pleasant cemetery to place flowers on the graves of Doctors Banting and Best who were instrumental in the discovery of insulin a century ago this year.

“We [underscore diabetes] doesn’t follow rhyme or reason, scientists can’t explain it, and we’re still working on that; but what we do know is we can all live a healthy life. We talk about that during our talks and how we can all support each other, whatever the challenges are.“I often find teachers who might not realize there are some challenges here, but they often think the students should be able to manage better than they do. These kids are not equipped to control blood sugars and even doctors can’t do this perfectly all the time; they can do better, but that is where the emotional part comes in for me.”

As someone who has travelled this journey himself – and continues to do so – he realized there needs to be a quiet environment for a person with diabetes to really feel comfortable sharing. ICD strives to create opportunities for kids with diabetes to have one-on-one time or a family get-together prior to their talks so they feel more comfortable, more included, and better able to share of themselves, including devices, so their peers are better aware.

“Some take more action than others, but I would say 95 per cent of our students end up getting to that comfort level,” says Chris. “A lot aren’t comfortable at first because they think they will look different in front of their peers, so that is what we do for the kid with diabetes. We sometimes have the odd class that doesn’t ask many questions; schools especially that have a theme about learning empathy and different themes every month, have students that become so interested in how they can be involved and share themselves.”

Another tip Chris shares with students is blood sugar numbers are just that – numbers.

“They are not a grade or a test we have to pass,” he says, adding that he sometimes felt ashamed to look at what his own numbers were, which hindered his own decision-making process when it came to taking his medicines.There is a lot to cope with, from finger pokes to the analysis of sugar, but in holding these talks he wants kids and their families to know that even the most successful of people experience these challenges every day.“

It is a really important message to go along with the ‘You can do it!’ approach,” he says. “A lot of kids who come to us think they’re going to a diabetes program because they’re different and really they are coming to learn how to do whatever they want to do together, and they can learn from their peers who are also going through the same challenge.”

For more on I Challenge Diabetes, visit ichallengediabetes.org.

Brock Weir, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Auroran

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