When Don Smith observes his 64th birthday Saturday, he'll spend a portion of the day swimming 300 laps at the YMCA in Defiance and thinking about children such as 7-year-old E'zion Watson.
The exercise benefits Mr. Smith, but that's not why he will swim more than four miles on his birthday. He'll do so to raise funds for E'zion and other youngsters with Type 1 diabetes so they can attend Diabetes Youth Services camps.
Mr. Smith began swimming to raise money for Diabetes Youth Services of Maumee in 2004, when he received $1,700 in donations. Since then, he has raised nearly $78,000.
"Not only have we raised funds, but we have raised awareness about DYS. I didn't know that it existed," said the Continental, Ohio, resident about his efforts and those of his wife, Connie. "I don't want a kid to be turned away [from camp] because mom and dad cannot afford it. If they don't have the money, get a hold of me and we'll find the money."
The Smiths' fund-raising efforts allowed for E'zion, a first-grader at Grove Patterson Academy in Toledo, to go to the Little Shots day camp at Olander Park in Sylvania with other 6-to-9-year-olds for the first time last summer, said his grandmother Dawn Watson. Youngsters between the ages of 10 and 15 stay overnight at the Big Shots camp at Camp Libbey in Defiance.
"One of the most powerful things was that he was around other kids with the same issues. There is a certain power in not feeling isolated," said Ms. Watson, a custodial supervisor.
When her grandson showed signs that something was amiss, Ms. Watson was on the threshold of a new experience, as none of her three children has diabetes. When E'zion said he wanted to sleep instead of going to the zoo, she knew a trip to the doctor was in order. A blood sugar count of a whopping 842 sent him to the hospital. Ms. Watson is the boy's custodial parent.
Mr. Smith has become passionate about ensuring that as many children as possible attend the youth camps. His venture started almost a decade ago on a routine trip to the Y to swim laps, as he does five times a week. He came upon a pamphlet about swimming for donations for DYS. A friend, the late Dr. Joseph Kraska, challenged him to do so. Mr. Smith embraced the idea, which turned out to be an eye-opening experience.
"You see the difference in these kids," said Mr. Smith, who is retired from the Putnam County municipal court where he was a probation officer. "To me, education or information gives us more power and control and self confidence, and that's what we're seeing in these kids."
At the camp, E'zion discovered that he was not the only child his age coping with diabetes, and he obtained information about how to manage it.
"I felt happy when I learned that other children have diabetes," he said, adding that he especially liked swimming and making new friends.
"I learned how to take care of my diabetes more. I don't eat a lot of candy, so when you have diabetes you can't eat that much candy. You have to eat more vegetables, protein," he said, adding that he looks forward to going again. "I liked it there and it's really fun there and because I get to learn new things."
Though Mr. Smith and his wife of 37 years have no children, you wouldn't know that based on how involved they are in DYS. He does not have Type 1 diabetes, but he did receive a diabetes diagnosis 18 months ago. Ms. Smith, also retired, is more than casually involved: She keeps the books, making "sure all the money is accounted for," he said.
"My wife is as hooked as I am. She has gone to camp and it just changed our lives," he said.
At the camps, the Smiths met children, parents, and grandparents who told them, "They would be lost without DYS. They combine normal camping activities with diabetic education," he said.
In 2007, Mr. Smith was challenged to swim 200 laps. He did. A year later, his friend said he would give him a $300 contribution if he swam 300 laps. He did.
"So every year on my birthday, I swim 300 laps," Mr. Smith said. "It's got to the point where the pledges are repeated year after year. Every penny since 2004 and every dollar goes directly to DYS. There's no cut on our end."
Mary Beth Alberti, executive director of DYS, applauds Mr. Smith.
"Don's enthusiasm and generosity have been a blessing to DYS and allow us to provide scholarships so every child can attend camp," she said.
Indeed, the agency obtains funding support from other sources for its camps and other programs. The Smiths' efforts solely back scholarships for campers.
Though the actual cost of the Big Shots camp is $1,800 per child, a child is charged only $400 and the rest is subsidized by the agency. The actual cost for a Little Shots camper is $1,963, but a child is charged only $150.
The actual costs pay for camp facilities and activities, a nurse and dietician, and food.
Contact Rose Russell at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6178.