Tonya Fuhrmann was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 10 years old. She knows firsthand the daunting challenges of confronting the condition and its monumental lifestyle changes as a child, and she’s committed much of her adulthood to helping kids navigate those trials, volunteering as a diabetes camp counselor for nearly two decades.
But despite that personal and professional experience, she wasn’t well versed in the complex logistics of launching a statewide nonprofit from scratch. The Helena native was, however, eager to learn and do the necessary work, even while maintaining a full-time job at Whitefish Credit Union.
The fruits of her efforts, as well as the efforts of a long list of collaborators, are now coming into focus with the Montana Youth Diabetes Alliance (MYDA) ready to launch its inaugural camp in 2021. Noting that November is National Diabetes Awareness Month, Fuhrmann, who is the alliance’s founder and president, said she’s thrilled to see a years-long dream coming true.
“I’m beyond excited,” Fuhrmann, 36, said.
The mission of MYDA, a 501c3, is to enrich the lives of youth with Type 1 diabetes, as well as their families, by offering safe, fun and educational opportunities through camps and other events, providing financial assistance for out-of-pocket expenses associated with self-management supplies and helping families navigate diabetes resources and support systems.
The four-and-a-half-day camp is scheduled for August 2021 at Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp and will draw kids ages 8-17 from across Montana. MYDA has also already started executing other aspects of its mission, including helping several Flathead Valley families with out-of-pocket expenses related to diabetes.
The camp, which will require more than 50 volunteers from support to medical workers, will feature activities such as basketball, gaga ball, arts and crafts, swimming and kayaking, as well as nutritional and educational programs.
“One of the most important things to me is that they’re learning how to take care of themselves and how to set up successful futures,” Fuhrmann said.
An executive committee, board of directors and medical board have aided the launch of the alliance. Fuhrmann has worked long hours in the evenings and on weekends, outside of her regular work hours, to establish the nonprofit, and she said her collaborators have been similarly committed to the cause.
“I couldn’t do this without those board members and committee members because they have resources and education and knowledge of things that I have no idea about, and they’ve given so much of their time,” she said. “We’re all really excited to be Montana based. All of us are from Montana, and we want this to be for Montana.”
The board and committee members bring diverse backgrounds and expertise, from Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia aiding with finances to medical specialists such as MYDA medical director Gabe Blomquist, who works in diabetes management at Billings Clinic.
“I’m very impressed with the people involved — there are some powerhouses in Montana’s diabetes world,” said Marci Butcher, a MYDA board member and Helena-based certified diabetes care and education specialist who has worked in the field for 30 years.
The members are united in having their lives touched by diabetes in some way, personally or professionally, and by their desire to fill a void for the Type 1 youth diabetes community of Montana. Most are from the Flathead Valley, where the nonprofit is headquartered, but a number hail from elsewhere in the state.
“They’re amazing people who have it in their heart to help others, who not only work in the field but put their volunteer life into it as well,” Butcher said. “They’re folks who really have this as their passion.”
Butcher said she was already looking into ways to address the increasingly prohibitive out-of-pocket costs of diabetes supplies and insulin when she came across Fuhrmann’s efforts. She eagerly joined the board, bringing with her an extensive network of contacts in the field.
“It was a total aligning of the stars,” Butcher said of meeting up with Fuhrmann. “We couldn’t believe we found each other.”
“I’ve been just so impressed with the work that’s already been done so far,” she added. “It’s going to be an incredible thing. I’m just very grateful to be a part of it.”
With Type 1 diabetes diagnoses on the rise, Fuhrmann hopes to offer an important set of services for this growing population. She attended Type 1 diabetes camps as a kid before serving as a counselor for nearly 20 years, and she said camps promote confidence in kids, help them realize they’re not alone and give them critical lifelong tools and skills to manage their diabetes and reach their potential.
“I want this to be successful for a very, very long time,” she said. “I want these kids to be able to rely on a camp experience for Type 1 diabetes every year forever because they deserve it.”
For more information, visit www.mydiabetesalliance.org.