I’ve been lucky in the sense that my girl hasn’t had any allergies to deal with. However, I have known so many friends whose kids have; and the bravery it takes to send them out into the world every single day hoping that someone won’t do some silly small thing that can kill them, has earned them my respect and support. Most people are pretty familiar with peanut allergies, and for what it’s worth, I personally am fine with an all out peanut ban anyplace where tons of kids are. Typically when needed, I have an “I have peanuts” table, and all other areas are peanut free. But what about when a girl pops up who has a life threatening allergy to something else? Say, eggs? Or cheese?
This summer at day camp, I had such a girl, allergic to both cheese (all dairy) and eggs. A really, really sweet and wonderful girl. A girl worth fighting for. A girl who deserved to spend every minute she could with her peers. When I first heard this on the first day of camp, I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal; she just wouldn’t help us prepare those foods. Easy, right?
Nope. Not right.
(Disclaimer: I had never encountered this situation before; it can be, and should be, much easier to accommodate easily. It wasn’t this time, for me, due to a bunch of things I discuss below. Girls (or kids, or humans in general) with allergies are not a burden!)
The thing I didn’t know ahead of time, is that this girl had a CONTACT allergy to eggs and cheese. A contact allergy is much more difficult to handle than an allergy that only activates upon ingestion. In other words, she did not need to EAT eggs/cheese/dairy to have a reaction; she just needed to be AROUND those things to have a reaction. I actually did not know this until the night we were making walking tacos, and the girls all had shredded cheese EVERYWHERE, and I discovered our allergic girl had been hiding in a glen shelter, crying all by herself.
Had I known ahead of time, we could have skipped the shredded cheese in the tacos! I could have planned totally different meals! But I didn’t know ahead of time. I found out when a girl came to tell me, and I turned around from what I’d been doing (fire duty) to see a picnic shelter entirely covered with shredded cheese! Incidentally, did you know that under the best of circumstances, shredded cheese is a pain to get off of cement and wood? These were not the best of circumstances, and I was terrified the girl might touch a place that cheese had TOUCHED and have a reaction.
I had a minor heart attack and lit a serious fire to get my girls to help get things cleaned up, so our girl could come out from hiding. But this was not my finest moment. Initiate frenzied scrubbing of all surfaces!
There were a few balls dropped by the very well intentioned staff here, people whom I really love, for what it’s worth. This is not about slamming another human volunteer doing their best; we are all volunteers here. This is part of the reason I wanted to write about this; I feel like a lot of us are scrambling to figure out the best way to handle these situations.
But to start with, their policy for kids with allergies like this is: to send them to the nurse to eat all meals. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you that for me, this is unacceptable. Even though the nurse at this particular day camp is basically my idol; she definitely would move heaven and earth to make any child with her feel special and make it fun. Still, there is the entire process of sending a kid to eat *away* from their group.
I actually did not even know of this “eat with the nurse” policy while all this was happening. I was kind of flying by the seat of my pants (let’s face it, that’s a lot of leading Girl Scouts!) trying to figure out a good solution to this issue. I didn’t learn about the “eat with the nurse” thing until AFTER everything went down.
Secondly, if a child has a contact allergy to ingredients, I personally feel like lots more information is needed. Could she have an anaphylactic reaction to touching a spot on a table where a piece of cheese had been? Would cleaning the table with windex be sufficient? Is she ok if someone is eating that item near her? What if a child touches the item and then touches the table, and then the girl touches the table? I know that with peanuts, the oils can cause that type of transfer, but I don’t know about other allergens. Is the reaction the same for eggs, cheese, milk? Even if I just look it up, the reality is that each individual child has different circumstances, and I feel like “allergic to eggs and dairy” was not enough information in this case. (Much love to her mama who trusted us to figure it out, though! Since everything turned out ok, I guess we did. Still I’m of the “inundate me with information” camp.)
I was horrified when I heard this girl had been hiding in a shelter crying about the cheese. Seriously horrified. My goal is to make everyone feel welcome, not like they have to hide!
That night I stayed up pondering; in the morning we’d be having french toast (eggs!) and lunch included egg salad (more eggs!).
After racking my brain for a bit I realized I could send her to a group of younger girls to have breakfast, where they’d only be having cereal for breakfast. I’d instruct her (and send a buddy or two) to teach the younger girls some songs and games while their leaders were busy. This worked perfectly!!! Girl went, with a few friends, and had a really good time getting some younger girl adoration instead of feeling excluded from the group. (How would that work with Daisies though? It wouldn’t! Nothing works for every situation.)
Then we had lunch which included, you guessed it, egg salad sandwiches. Girls were able to choose between cheese, tuna, or egg for their sandwiches. For this, instead of excluding the girl, I set up a picnic area for girls who were eating egg salad for lunch about 50 feet away from our main shelter. They actually LOVED this and had a blast, while the majority of girls stayed in the shelter with our allergic girl. Again, so she felt included instead of EXcluded.
I’m not sure anyone can think of every single situation ahead of time, even though I know the leaders of that camp try! I know I certainly try! I’d love to hear how you have handled situations like this, either as the parent of a kiddo with allergies or a leader who has girls who have allergies. Everything we can do to include every single girl and help them be successful and have fun, is worth it!