By VAL OLIVAS, Four Points News
Five years ago, Heather Nielson thought that moms who complained about kids bringing peanut butter sandwiches to school were “overprotective worriers.” She thought that food allergies were not that big of a deal.
“Then, my daughter Hope was born, and my whole world was turned upside down,” Nielson said.
She joined the Laura W. Bush Elementary Food Allergy Awareness Committee because Hope will be starting kindergarten next fall. Hope, 5, has life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, sesame and eggs, and she has less serious allergies to many other foods. She also has asthma and eczema.
“I want to make sure that our school is safe for her and for everyone,” Nielson said. “The reality, as crazy as it seems, is that a kid could eat peanut butter at lunch and then touch my daughter at recess, and she could have a severe reaction and die.”
Food Allergy Awareness formed
The Food Allergy Awareness Committee has a purpose to promote food allergy awareness, support, education and understanding.
Founder Iris Perez initially created the group — which was implemented in the 2013-2014 academic year — as a support outlet for parents who were concerned about their children navigating and managing food allergies at school.
Perez’s son Nicholas, 9, was diagnosed at 13-months-old with severe life-threatening allergies to nuts, in particular peanuts. He is also highly allergic to tree nuts including pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts, eggs and soy.
“I was overwhelmed with worry, anxiety and, crazy as it sounds, almost lonely as I started working on the plan. My goal changed to not just creating a support group, but also creating a program for the purpose of raising awareness,” Perez said.
When Nicholas started kindergarten, Perez looked for information, guidelines and support groups on the Leander ISD website and other sites, but she wasn’t successful in finding something she could adopt.
“I wanted my son to be safe, feel included, and others to learn more about food allergies so that they could appreciate the severity of food allergies,” Perez said.
When Nicholas started first grade, she found herself in the same situation — worried, anxious, not knowing how his new teacher would manage his food allergies or how the other parents would react to a kindly request from a teacher to make their classroom peanut-free because of food allergies.
“I knew of other parents who had kids with food allergies, but no one really talked about them openly,” Perez.
“This fear and anxiety drove me to get more involved and do more than just watch and hope that teachers and parents would understand and help me,” she said.
The group uses the Food Allergy Research and Education’s research which states that food allergies affects one in every 13 children under 18 years of age in the U.S.
Committee members share
Nicole Gray was glad to learn of the LWBE Food Allergy Awareness Committee. Her family moved here in 2013 and came from a school that had adopted a “peanut free” environment, which was so helpful for them because they have a child with a severe peanut allergy.
“I joined this committee immediately as I wanted to do whatever I could to make others aware at this school, of the fear we face every day. This committee although new, has been a helpful resource for me as a parent in trying to protect my child from exposure on a daily basis,” Gray said.
She feels the committee has made significant strides in increasing the awareness of children with allergies.
“With small changes, we can make our school environment safe for all,” Gray said.
Jennifer Mooney is amazed at how her son’s friends are so compassionate when it comes to his food allergies.
“They ask their mom not to pack peanut butter, so they can sit next to him at lunch, or they want to make sure he has a special treat at the birthday party,” Mooney said.
Mooney said awareness is the key word.
“This is not a committee to try and ban all high allergen foods from school. We are simply trying to raise awareness and support families with food allergies,” she said.
There was no allergy committee when her oldest started at LWBE and Mooney is grateful for Perez’s persistence.
“We now have resources for families coming in to LWBE for the first time. They won’t feel alone, or maybe we can ease their stress by sharing our stories,” Mooney added.
The committee is a PTA-sponsored program and not LISD-based. “We have been grateful that our school nurses (former and current) have been very supportive of it,” Perez said.
The committee provides information to parents, school administration and teachers. In addition, posters are displayed to encourage children to practice hand washing after consumption of food and to refrain from food sharing with their classmates, said Perez.
The group hopes to host a local allergist to speak with LWBE families in the months ahead. Participation in community events, such as, FARE’s Walk for Food Allergies at Mueller Lake Park and Food Allergy Awareness Week in May is also encouraged.
The awareness committee and the PTA have also helped River Ridge Elementary start their own Food Allergy Awareness Committee.
Perez said, “We still have a lot work to do, but we know that we aren’t alone. Together we can educate, promote awareness, and understanding so all kids are safe and included.”