I Support: Diabetes Scholars Foundation

I’m a big fan of the CWD Friends for Life conferences.  I attended my first in 2010, and it changed my life.  Every person who lives with type 1 diabetes (and their family) deserves to attend this conference at least once.  But finding a way to pay for travel, lodging, registration, and incidental expenses is really hard for most people.  The cost involved puts it out of reach for too many.

It should be noted that very generous sponsors heavily subsidize the conference.  The actual cost of renting out a convention center for five days, feeding 3000 people, and getting busloads of kids into Disney is mind-blowing.  The registration fees we are asked to pay are incredibly low when looking at it from that perspective.  Even so, it’s hard for most, and impossible for some.

Enter Diabetes Scholars; a foundation started by a group of parents in 2005 with a goal of empowering through education to give kids and families the tools they need to live well with type 1 diabetes.

I recently spoke with Mary Podjasek, the current president of the foundation, whose husband and daughter both live with type 1 diabetes.  I wanted to better understand the foundation, their goals, and ways that we can help.

Conference Scholarships

Getting families to Friends for Life is how the foundation started.  Scholarships are awarded based on need, with the board reviewing blinded and confidential tax and income information.  Mary said that more priority is given to newly diagnosed families, saying, “If we can catch them early on, it really makes a difference.

Originally focused on the US Friends for Life conference, the foundation is now also working to get people to the regional conferences, Friends for Life Canada, and Friends for Life UK.

This year alone they have received between 70-80 applications for scholarships, and while they feel good about helping those they can, they are heartbroken having to turn people away.

Young Adult Scholarships

Three years ago the foundation started the young adults program, working to help those ranging from about 18-24 who want to go to the conference.  This program is not need based, as it’s important for them to get every young adult they can to the conference.  The foundation wants to make sure that nobody falls through the cracks here — this is a challenging period of life, diabetes or not.

Arming people with education, peer-to-peer support, and a healthy dose of motivation and positive surroundings, can give them a boost as they are transitioning into college, into the real world work environments, away from pediatric care into adult endo offices, and from home life to life on their own.

The scholarships for both family and young adults cover conference registration, lodging at the hotel, and banquet tickets.  The recipients need to find a way to get there and back.

As of this writing (September, 2011), Diabetes Scholars have helped get 200 families and young adults to conferences.  That’s about 33 families each year. Wow.

College Scholarship Program

Four years ago the foundation started the College Scholarship Program, and they are the only foundation in the nation that offers college scholarships that are open to all students with type 1 diabetes.

Each scholarship is for $5000 towards college.

Mary says, “In this one little area of life we wanted diabetes to be an advantage for these kids.

This program is not need based either, but there is a very thorough application (15 pages!).  The foundation looks at their grades, activities, volunteering, leadership, and advocacy, as well as an essay and a couple of letters of recommendation.

All of the applications are blinded, and then reviewed by volunteers all over the country.  A selection committee then chooses finalists. “Every year gets harder and harder”, Mary says, “I could have awarded 100 scholarships if I had the money.

This year alone she had 25 kids who applied that were National Merit Scholars – National Merit Scholars are .5 of the top 1% students in the nation!  And she had 25 applicants that were National Merit Scholars!

In addition to the normal scholarships, they are starting to work with donors and sponsors around unique scholarships.  These scholarships vary in amount and have conditions on them.  Mary says these are much more work, but allow more kids to get more help, so it’s worth it.

Some examples of these unique scholarships:

  • A small non-profit in Michigan offered a scholarship for a Michigan resident that would be going to the University of Michigan.
  • A professional ballet dancer donating specifically for a student going into the arts.
  • SPIbelt donated for an athletic scholarship
  • A resident in Colorado set up a memorial fund for students in Colorado.
  • JDRF funded four different scholarships for very specific areas of interest (political science, medical training, etc).

To date the Diabetes Scholars Foundation has awarded over $350,000 in college scholarships.  That is amazing progress; keeping in mind this program has only been in place for four years.

Vision For The Future?

When I asked Mary about the future of Diabetes Scholars, without hesitation she said she’d like to send every family to a conference and every applicant to college.  “I’m only limited by my funding.

In terms of funding, the past couple years have been really hard for the foundation; with the economy tanking she saw drastic reductions in their donations. One of her major donors had to cut back to nearly one-third of their typical donation.  It’s been really hard on everyone.

She talked about partnering with sponsors to offer internships, which are invaluable for students looking to enter the industry.  Sometimes that experience can make all the difference on a job application.

Mary would also like to expand beyond the CWD conferences.  “There are lots of great things going on that we’d like to send people to,” she says.

How Can You Help?

Many of us are short on financial resources, but there are many different ways to help.  One major way is to spread the word.  Help people understand the great work Diabetes Scholars is doing, and encourage them to spread the word.  The more people who know about the foundation, the more help they will receive.

Find auction items!  Last year the foundation ran a fundraising auction just before the Friends for Life conference, and it was a great success.  But it was hard to find auction items.  Mary said she sent out over 600 e-mail messages and requests for items, and she received donations from a very small number of those.  So keep your eyes peeled for donation items or services that Mary and the foundation might be able to use.

Do you have a blog or a website?  Grab a button and put it/or a link to the foundation on your site.  Help people who can donate to get there.

Run a fundraiser!  In a perfect example of the character Friends for Life builds, the teens and young adults ran a fundraising drive on Facebook last year.  The group to donated their Starbucks money for a week, or donated their babysitting money, or their spare change, or whatever.  That group raised over $3000 to help get a family to the conference.

There are many ways to help Mary and her group, only one of which is actually donating cold hard cash.

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Scott K. Johnson

Patient voice, speaker, writer, advocate, and Senior Community Manager at Blue Circle Health. Living life with diabetes and telling my story. All opinions expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent my employer’s position. Read more…

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