Ottawa Preteen’s Sugardrop Sweetwear Co. Fashionably Fighting Diabetes

Kate Beaulieu, it could be said, was your usual pre-teen girl. She played basketball, loved to dance and hang out with her friends for sleepovers. Then came the Christmas where she could barely get off the couch. There was nothing usual about that. When she said she felt she wasn’t feeling well enough to dance her mother knew something was wrong.

Soon came the words that would change young Kate’s life, words she didn’t understand at first. Neither of them did.

“Mom, am I going to die?” she asked followed by the heart wrenching “can I still dance?”

The frightening reality for a parent faced with such questions from their trembling daughter was this: mom didn’t have the answers.

Kate had just been told that she had Type 1 diabetes. The two stood there at the Children’s Hospital as tears began to fall. The moment between those words and what her doctor said next must have felt like an eternity. She was 11-years-old. That’s not much life to have flash before one’s eyes in an instance where one her age should never be contemplating their mortality. Thankfully, they were informed, they caught it just in time but that didn’t mean that Kate wasn’t in for some changes.

“We had to come back to CHEO the very next morning to start intensive training sessions on how to manage this disease. We met with the diabetic team – a nurse, endocrinologist, dietitian and a social worker,” says Kate, remembering those first days as the news began to sink in.

Karan, her mother, was in disbelief. It had to be a mistake, she thought to herself, hoping that when the full lab results returned it would all be revealed to be untrue. There wasn’t much of a margin of error to find hope in. The doctors were 99.9% sure.

“I definitely panicked and started Googling on my phone,” Karan says, recalling how what she found online only heightened her anxiety. “Kate was crying and scared. I really didn't know what to tell her as I barely knew anything about Type 1. My first thought was what do we do now? How will her life change? What is her life expectancy? Can she have kids? My mind was racing. “

While a life for most preteens is usually frenetic and unplanned, things in the Beaulieu house would have to get pretty regimented. There would be two daily injections, monitoring of mood shifts and regulating what was eaten.

“I can't just leave the house anymore like I used to and have to make sure that I have all of my diabetic supplies with me at all times. I have to carry fast acting glucose tablets or juice with me in case I have low blood sugar. I have to have a plan,” Kate says.

While this could have very well become her daily routine, what she decided to do next with that plan is nothing short of amazing.

In 2016 Statistics Canada reported that roughly 2.1 million Canadians had been diagnosed with diabetes with percentages rising each year. While everyone deals with the daily life shifts attributed to being diabetic differently, it’s a fair bet to say that not everyone is going to found a clothing company and become its CEO in an effort to raise awareness of the early signs of Type 1 Diabetes three months after being diagnosed.

That, however, is exactly what Kate Beaulieu did.

Instead of getting depressed, she got inquisitive. She started researching, reading up on facts and figures and admits that in the months after her diagnosis she feels she became more mature and responsible. After discovering a clothing website called Ivory Ella where portions of sales are donated to help elephants, Kate came up with the idea that a similar model could be used to spread diabetes awareness. She turned to her mother for help with the design of how her clothes should look.

“Our first prototype was a bit lame – we used iron on paper from Staples and a clothing iron. I burnt the first t-shirt but she loved it,” recalls Karan. They made a logo and called it Sugardrop Sweetwear after the phrase they used for Kate’s blood sugar testing.

The shirts were a hit amongst her friends and shortly after giving some out in birthday party lootbags, Karan and Kate were organizing a fundraising booth at their community garage sale. They sold out of everything. Realizing they could do more with their homemade clothing, the family bought a t-shirt press and began adding hoodies to the now growing Sugardrop apparel line.

Karan says that her daughter’s suggestion did come as a pretty big surprise what with all they were going through at the time but Kate was serious about it. She would watch YouTube videos on how to refashion shirts by cutting and braiding them. A website for Sugardrop was a natural progression in order to reach more people but Kate says she just didn’t want a place where they could come to buy clothing even if it was all for a good cause. She wanted her brand that had a story and one where others could feel united in sharing theirs.

“Sugardrop is for everyone,” she proudly proclaims. “I also wanted the shirts to be something that everyone can wear and not just diabetics.”

The biggest challenge, she says, is actually making the clothing. It all started out of the home in her spare time which, for a pre-teen, isn’t much. Between school, dance and time with friends and family, Karan and Kate work on the shirts, sweaters and bags sold on their site while also spreading the word through social media.

“It’s a lot of hard work but I love it,” Kate beams. “I feel I am a role model now so I have to think before I post things because I represent Sugardrop.”

Karan is proud of what her daughter has accomplished in such a short time and how she turned her diagnosis into a way to help others. She also says that, though always tightly knit, working on Sugardrop has brought them even closer together.

“I love helping her and the support and feedback that we have received has been overwhelming. It makes this journey so worthwhile,” says Karan.

Kate has even bigger plans for the future of Sugardrop. Outside of secretly wishing that a hoodie finds its way onto Nick Jonas (who also has T1D), they plan on making new products like hats, baby clothes, leggings and sports bras. She is interested in working with CHEO and Diabetes Canada and, while presently they donate proceed portions to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the family hopes to expand aid towards other charities.

“The biggest message I want to spread with Sugardrop is that it only takes one drop of blood to diagnose T1D. If you are experiencing any of the early signs of T1D, you need to insist that your doctor tests your blood sugar,” says Kate.

“It's Ok. You will still be able to do whatever you want in life.”