Meet the Pair Leading the Charge for Type 1 Diabetes Awareness & Support in Polk County
by RYAN MILEJCZAK
photos by TYLER DIGIOVINE
Diabetes is a disease you’re likely already familiar with to some degree. It’s a chronic condition that affects how the body turns food into energy. Type 2 diabetes — the most common form — occurs when the body makes less insulin than it used to and becomes resistant to insulin. Not as common but no less important is type 1 diabetes, when the body completely stops making insulin and is often characterized by highly volatile blood sugar levels.
Type 1 diabetes is commonly known as juvenile diabetes because it often first occurs in childhood, though it can develop at any age. In the United States alone, there are 1.24 million people living with Type 1 diabetes.
Because it is less common and less understood, type 1 diabetics are often underserved in their communities. Resources are often lacking, and this compounded with the high cost of medication and supplies can make living with type 1 diabetes a challenge.
This lack of resources and awareness can be especially challenging in underserved areas like Polk County. It was this need for greater resources and awareness that inspired Winter Haven’s Nick Plott and Ashley Bell Barnett to take the charge for their community.
Nick Plott has been passionate about type 1 diabetes ever since he started dating his now wife, Marijo Plott, who was diagnosed with T1D when she was 6 years old. He has long been involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), and his employer, TECO Energy, was already supporting the fund monetarily when he came into his current role there. It was at this time that he saw an opportunity to make his involvement count even more.
“When I came into this role, we didn’t have a human resource dedicated to JDRF,” he explains. “So I asked, ‘Hey, we’re already giving this money to JDRF, do you mind if I also do community service with them, or serve a role on a board or committee?’ They agreed, and Plott has since served as a board member for JDRF for the past six years, and has worked hard to raise money for diabetes research.
Due to his work with JDRF and passion for type 1 diabetes awareness, Plott was perfectly poised to start a support group in Polk County. It all got started after a chance meeting with well-known community advocate Bell Barnett, who was 27 when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
In 2019 when the Plotts and Bell Barnett found themselves at the same party. Bell Barnett, who serves on the Polk State College District Board of Trustees, remembers looking around the room and spotting Marijo Plott with a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) patch on her arm. “I was like, oh my god, another diabetic!” says Bell Barnett.
The three of them spoke for a while, and the discussion found its way to the lack of type 1 diabetes resources in Polk County.
“You could either go to Tampa or Sarasota, or you could do Orlando,” Bell Barnett says. “Well, that’s just too far!”
The Winter Haven residents decided to start Polk County T1DConnect, a local support group for type 1 diabetics and their families in Polk County.
Networking and bonding with fellow type 1 diabetics can help those with the disease feel less alone and stay updated on the latest resources and treatments. Bell Barnett shares the story of how, after her diagnosis, it was a fellow type 1 diabetic who reached out to her.
“I had a lady of about 70 reach out to me, and she told me, ‘Don’t let the disease control you. You’re gonna have burnout, but you can take a break, cleanse your mind, and get the emotional part out of it and get back to work.’ And so that’s one of the things that I really try to focus on. If I find out anybody is diabetic, I really try to reach out and help them,” she says. With their support group, the Plotts and Bell Barnett are dedicated to providing just this kind of support.
The support group started out fairly ad hoc but quickly grew. As it did, Plott and Bell Barnett realized the need for experts to come speak at the support groups.
“That’s where Anne Claussen at Central Florida Health Care helped us out. She donated her facilities in downtown Winter Haven, she offered up one of their dietitians to speak to us, and it was great,” says Plott.
Although the group faced setbacks during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s been able to bounce back. Currently, meetings can see as many as 60 people, including both type 1 diabetics and their families and caretakers, all of whom form what Bell Barnett calls their “diatribe.” These days, the group meets quarterly at Bonnet Springs Park in Lakeland. Meetings consist of food, group discussions, and talks from medical professionals.
From here, they hope to continue growing the group, as well as resources and awareness for type 1 diabetes in Polk County.
“My hope is that every type 1 diabetic in Polk County would know about our group and that we’re here to help,” Plott says.
“I want to create as much awareness as possible, and get them plugged into the community that we’ve built so that these families know they’re not alone.”
Don’t miss the next meeting of Polk County T1DConnect on Nov. 7 from 6-8 p.m. at the Depot Cafe in Bonnet Springs Park in Lakeland.