Monica Joyce: Helping Kids Boost Their Diabetes Defense

Monica Joyce, MS, RD, CDE

While reading about NBA star Chris Dudley, Monica Joyce had an idea that has helped hundreds of kids with diabetes.

Dudley was one of the few NBA players with type 1 diabetes, and beginning in 1995 his foundation started camps to help kids cope with the disease while having fun. Dudley, who was diagnosed at 16, wanted to let kids with diabetes know they weren’t alone.

Joyce thought: There should be a camp for kids in Chicago. A registered dietitian, she mentioned the idea to a patient whose husband was on the Chicago Bulls board of directors. Others with the team supported the idea; and the Bulls provided coaches, facilities and financial aid for diabetic kids who otherwise might not be able to attend the new Moses E. Cheeks Foundation Slam Dunk for Diabetes Basketball Day Camp. “‘Suddenly they don’t feel any different when they’re on the court,’ Joyce says of blood sugar checks, ‘everybody is doing the same thing.’”

Nearly a decade later, there are four camps in Illinois and Indiana serving hundreds of children ages 5 to 18. The camps accept kids with type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and children who are prediabetic. Joyce, the camp director, is opening a fifth camp in Milwaukee, Wis., in the summer.

In many cases, campers are the only one on their hometown sports teams with diabetes. Some are the only ones in their school or in their own family, and that can create loneliness. But things are different at the Slam Dunk camps. “Suddenly they don’t feel any different when they’re on the court having blood sugar checks,” Joyce says. “Everybody is doing the same thing.”

While kids may think lessons about diabetes are only learned in a classroom or a doctor’s office, Slam Dunk camps help kids associate something cool with the challenges of diabetes. Campers are amazed here are so many others like them, and have formed lasting friendships through the week-long camps.

As a pioneer in the field, Joyce was hired long before the diseases were as well researched as they are today. Thirty two years later, Joyce is a certified diabetes educator as well as a registered dietitian. She is working toward her goal of getting each NBA team to support a Slam Dunk for Diabetes Camp. With the number of diabetes cases on the rise, kids need education and acceptance more than ever.

To pay for the nonprofit camps, Joyce writes grant proposals, asks for donations, hosts fundraisers and works many long weeks. But each child, “no matter what his economic background, goes for free,” Joyce says. “My philosophy is to not turn anyone away.”

Casey McNerthney