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Finding my Tribe: My experience at Friends for Life Orlando 2017

In 2014, I was in the middle of my college experience and feeling burnt out. I didn’t know any other diabetics my age, and the few I had met online felt like figments of my imagination, not real people. I felt alone, hopeless, and like no one understood what I was going through.

Enter Friends For Life.

Now I couldn’t tell you where and when I first learned about this conference. What I can tell you is that the idea of thousands of people who are all connected to the diabetes community gathering in one place intrigued me. So I looked into how I could attend the 2015 conference that next summer. I was extremely lucky and was able to get a scholarship through the Diabetes Scholars Foundation, so in the July of 2015, I packed my bags, boarded a plane, and flew to Orlando, unsure of what I was about to walk into.

As soon as I walked into the conference center, I felt like I was at home.

Friends for Life is a place where everywhere y

iiioou look, you are surrounded by people who just get it. Every single person at this conference either has diabetes or someone they love has diabetes. You look around and see a wave of green (diabetes) , orange (family of person with diabetes) , and yellow (celiac) bracelets, and know that when you say you have a low blood sugar, you will have a bunch of people ready to share their low supplies with you. It is a safe place, where if you forget something, you can relax and know that at least one other person there uses the same supplies and can lend you a lancet or an infusion set if you need it.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to be in a place where when a Dexcom alarm goes off, twenty people look at their smart watches or their receivers to make sure it isn’t them?

It’s a place that is filled with so many good vibes that people will wear their wristbands until they fall off because they don’t want to forget the good times they had.

 

I left my first conference with a new lease on life. The people that before were just names on a computer screen now had become real to me. I went back the next year, meeting even more new friends (called FFLs) and left knowing I had to give back to this wonderful organization that had changed my life.

So this year, I decided to join staff and work with the tweens (aged 9-12). I felt a connection to this age group since I was diagnosed with diabetes when I was 12 years old, so I felt like I had an instant bond that went further than the diabetes connection with these kids.

I wasn’t prepared for the lessons they would teach me.

I guess because I was diagnosed as a tween, and all the people I had met who had had it since they were infants or small children were adults like I was, I never really understood what it was like to only know diabetes. Some of these kids didn’t know anything else but diabetes, and others were like me who had only recently been diagnosed. But the biggest shock was the realization that I had had diabetes longer than most of these kids had been alive.

It was a sobering thought.

But with the sad realizations came some adorable experiences as well. I found a tween named Victoria who shared a diaversary with me, and a tween named Jordan who shared a birthday with me. I was in a group with this awesome kid named Logan (check him out on FB at The Elbow Bump Kid), who almost singlehandedly made sure that the conference would be able to enjoy Mickey Bars (which to those who don’t know are these delicious ice cream bars shaped like Mickey that somehow taste better at the Friends for Life Conference). I was also renamed Not-Chelsea by another tween named Maddie, and she called me that for the entirety of the conference. But one of the cutest things I saw was this girl named Sara. Her little brother has diabetes, and she said she didn’t want him to feel alone, so she got this little stuffed bear (named Veggy, in case anyone was wondering) and decided that the bear had diabetes as well. So she tested his blood sugars, treated his lows and highs, and tracked all of it in a log in her notebook. I thought it was so sweet.

And any mood can be brightened with the exhibit hall at the conference. They don’t lie when they tell you to leave room in your suitcase when you come to the conference. You will walk away with so much free stuff that you will always be able to show off your FFL memories in some way. This year there were a few new vendors like Myabetic (who have some of the cutest bags made for diabetics), Genteel (pain-free lancing device (which is no. 1 on my wish list right now), and this cool device called MedAngel, which tracks the temperature of your insulin (look for my review on that coming soon!). There were also a lot of repeat vendors, like Novo Nordisk, DRI, Lilly, Tandem, Dexcom, Insulet, and Animas. It is a great feeling to see all these organizations and businesses who want to make life with diabetes better gathering in one place (and the free stuff doesn’t hurt either!)

The memories I made this year will stay with me forever, partially because I will keep them in my heart, but also because I have a wonderful keepsake to remind me of all the people I met.

All of my FFLs (minus a few that I didn’t manage to track down before they had to leave (aka Morgan, who will have to sign twice next year)) signed this pillowcase for me so I can remember the little things, like how one liked wearing a sparkly silver bow in her hair, or how another was always cold like I was. I was especially excited that two of my best FFLs, Samantha and Eleanor, were able to sign as well, since I was on staff and didn’t get to see them as much this year.

I’ll admit I was not as good at taking pictures as I could of been. I played the model this last week more than the photographer, but I hope I was able to paint a vivid enough picture of what my experience was like to convince you that you should consider coming to join us next year. If you want more information, you can go to here and learn more about this amazing experience!

I’m exhausted, and I picked up a cold somewhere during the conference, but I can’t wait to go back and be surrounded by my Friends for Life.