Annual Friends for Life Conference Not Just for Kids Anymore
Thousands flock to the Woodstock of type 1 diabetes
By Moira McCarthy
Nearly 35 years into her life with type 1 diabetes, Kelly Kunik walked into the grand hallway at the Marriott World Center in Orlando, took a deep breath, and took it all in.
She'd never been there before and had not met most, if any, of the 3,000 folks surrounding her. But as she stood there to register for the 12th annual Children With Diabetes Friends for Life Conference (FFL), she had one powerful thought:
"Honestly, it was like I'd just come home."
Kunik, like thousands of others, made the pilgrimage to Orlando in hot, sticky July to be part of the conference for anyone living with or caring about someone who lives with type 1 diabetes. Thought to be the largest single annual gathering of its type in the world, FFL grew from a modest get-together in the summer of 2000 to become a force of nature; bringing in celebrities and diabetes experts from around the globe, filling a giant exhibit hall with displays from the world's top diabetes companies, and making news that grabs diabetes headlines around the world. All over the course of five event-filled days.
All that, said Kunik, is awesome. But it's beside the point.
"I don't think you realize until you are in this situation, this scene, how much we all need this," the well-known blogger (diabetesaliciousness.blogspot.com) said of her first trip to FFL this past summer. "There are lots of tears, lots of laughter. We all just let it all hang out. And it's cool. Because everyone there – every last person – totally gets it."
Kunik is one of an increasing group of people attending FFL each year: adults with type 1. Families, though, are still the base of the entire program.
Take the Cotton family. They traveled about one-third of the way around the world – from cool Anchorage to steamy Orlando – just to be in the thick of it. Explained mom Denise Cotton, "I could count on one hand and have fingers left over the number of people I know in person with type 1. I read about this and was instantly jealous. I knew we had to go, no matter what it took. No way you can pass up an opportunity to be around 3,000 people who truly get it and know it."
What Happens at FFL…
The conference first began modestly, but has grown over the years to a full-scale event featuring a world-renowned faculty, keynote speeches from internationally recognized names, and performances from rock, pop, and sports stars, all with a direct connection to type 1 diabetes.
The 2012 event opens with some focus group sessions that families or individuals can take part in to help the diabetes industry better understand patient needs. Participants can also attend a first-timers event and there's a chance for folks to register, mingle, and make friends. That first day winds up slowly, giving everyone time to settle in and get familiar.
But a funny thing happens in the lobby and the hallways and on the elevators and by the pool: people notice the wristbands (green means you have type 1, orange means you care about someone who does) and instantly connect.
"We weren't in the lobby more than two minutes before we were surrounded by new friends," said Cotton, who was there with her entire family, including her own mother, on behalf of her eight-year-old daughter with diabetes Kearstyn ("Bean.") "And they all felt like friends in an instant. It's really incredible."
Day two of the convention brought the opening keynote address, which was delivered by DRI VP (as well as dLife "Diabetes Dad") Tom Karlya and CWD founder Jeff Hitchcock. Hitchcock, still giddy over the recent marriage of his own daughter with diabetes, Marissa, reminded the crowd that there is more to life than just perfect glucose control. "We don't raise the child to the A1C," he said of living life with a child with diabetes. "We raise them to be happy and healthy."
Days two and three of the convention are crammed with educational sessions, speakers, family dinners, and more. The final days feature sporting events the family can take part in, more bonding time for new friends, and more time to peruse the exhibit hall.
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