Happy Campers - Children with Allergies
The first summer Anastasia Poulos went to sleep-away camp, her favorite activity was the scavenger hunt. Being there, however, was only possible because Anastasia’s mother had embarked on a serious hunt of her own—to find a camp where her food-allergic daughter would be safe.
Gail Poulos of Silver Spring, Maryland, wanted to find a place where Anastasia, then 13, could enjoy traditional camp activities, including canoeing, hiking and sitting around a campfire. She found it on the shores of Lake Wabamun in Alberta, Canada, a summer camp run by the Allergy Asthma Information Association (AAIA).
For the past five years, AAIA has offered a week of summer camp for food-allergic kids. These campers, about 20 of a total of 85 kids, are integrated into the regular camp program. The only difference is that AAIA prepares their meals in a separate kitchen overseen by a dietician.
“It’s the first time a lot of these kids actually feel they’re like everybody else,” says Lilly Byrtus, who started and runs the camp.
Anastasia, who has a life-threatening allergy to milk, formed special bonds of friendship at this camp when she was 13 and returned when she was 15.
“The camp showed her that she wasn’t alone with her condition,” says Poulos. “But my favorite thing is that it provided a safe but challenging environment for food-allergic kids and that children without allergies also attended. What a great learning experience for all the children.”
Moms in the Kitchen
Pamela Jann of Howell, Michigan, wanted a camp environment where her son David, 11, and other food-allergic children could “feel normal.” After years of sending David to camp with a cooler full of food, she and fellow-mom Deanna Seng decided to take charge.
The two commandeered the kitchen at Camp Westminster, a sleep-away camp on Higgins Lake in northern Michigan. They researched the food, created a menu and served a group of food-allergic campers a variety of kid-friendly meals, including spaghetti, meatballs, toast and waffles—all without gluten, dairy and peanuts.
This time, there was no need for a cooler for David Jann, who has multiple food sensitivities and a life-threatening allergy to dairy. He didn’t have to heat up the food himself or go to the dining hall early to make sure the staff hadn’t forgotten about his meal.
“It never occurred to me that David’s favorite thing about camp would be eating family style,” Jann says. “This was a big thing for these kids—that everybody was eating the same food.”
Many children had never tasted standard camp fare like s’mores before.
“They were just thrilled,” recalls Jann. “The look on their faces made the whole experience for me.”
Gina Clowes of Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, has sent her son Daniel, now 8, to day camps in the past, selected more for safety than fun. Even so, it wasn’t unusual for Clowes to accompany the boy, who is allergic to milk, wheat, egg, tree nuts and peanut, because she felt uneasy about the level of care.
“Reactions can come on suddenly and snowball within minutes,” she says, adding that camp can pose special risks, such as hiking to remote areas and teen counselors with little experience.
This summer, Clowes, who is founder of the online support group AllergyMoms and author of a children’s book about food allergies, is doing something different. She and friends are opening a half-day camp for children with food allergies called One of the Gang. Sponsored by AllergyMoms and For Your Good Health, a nonprofit operated by a local allergist, the camp will be “95 percent fun and 5 percent education,” teaching campers to advocate for themselves, Clowes says. The camp in Cranberry Township, a northern suburb of Pittsburgh, will also offer parents opportunity to share stories and tips while their kids are busy with activities.
Next summer, Clowes plans to expand to a full-day camp and then a sleep-away camp the following year.
“I intend to do it step by step,” she says, adding that a top goal of the camp is to promote camaraderie so that “these kids know they’re not the only ones with food allergies.”
Choosing a Camp
Most parents don’t have the time or inclination to start up their own camp. So short of doing it yourself, how do you ensure that your child has a fun and safe summer camp experience? It’s all about education, awareness and communication, says Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). FAAN offers helpful advice in its Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies at Camp. The good news is that more camps than ever before are getting on board with food allergies and working with parents to provide a safe atmosphere, Munoz-Furlong says.
Where to start? If you're look at mainstream camps, narrow your search by selecting those accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA), says Linda Ebner Erceg, executive director of the Association of Camp Nurses. “They’re more likely to have an allergy plan in place.”
Erceg recommends contacting your top camp choices and asking questions: What is the camp’s food-allergy management plan? Where is medication stored? How close is the nearest medical facility? Is staff trained to handle allergy emergencies? Is a nurse available?
It’s also important to ask about off-site trips. Campers sign up for the whole outdoor experience, Erceg says. Anaphylaxis “doesn’t typically occur at the nurse’s knee.”
Parents need to follow their instincts about what type of camping experience is appropriate for their child, Munoz-Furlong says. A camp in the middle of nowhere is probably not the best location for a child with a history of severe allergic reactions. A child’s age and comfort level speaking up about their health should also be factored in.
“These kids are hiking in remote areas and may be playing out on a lake, far from camp and main roads. There is often no phone signal,” Munoz-Furlong says. “Parents must think about these scenarios before sending their kids off. You don’t want to imagine your child in a crisis situation but if you don’t have the discussions and have a worst-case plan, you’re not protecting your child or your peace of mind.”
How are meals handled? Parents should research the camp menu and closely communicate with camp officials. These conversations are important even at camps specifically geared for allergies so that all expectations are clearly understood, says Munoz-Furlong. For example, what exactly does “peanut free” mean? Is food allowed in sleeping areas? Are care packages freely shared?
Parents should work with the appropriate camp staff to customize a meal plan that fits their child. Wildwood Camp in LaCygne, Kansas, provides parents with the menu well in advance so that meals can be supplemented as necessary. Parents send home-prepared meals in coolers marked with their children’s name and the food is stored in the camp refrigerator. “For us, success is based on collaborating with parents,” says Jose Cornejo, Wildwood’s co-executive director.
If possible, parents should visit the camp before it starts. How is the kitchen set up? What’s the risk of cross contamination? If parents can't visit beforehand, they should tour upon arrival.
Based on early discussions with camp officials, Gail Poulos decided to provide her daughter’s food and even bring a microwave for Anastasia’s exclusive use to avoid the risk of cross contamination. When she arrived, Poulos met with the dietician and camp director and toured the kitchen and dining area.
Once you find the camp that meets your child’s idea of fun and measures up to safety standards, prepare an emergency info pack. It should include written instructions about the allergy and how to handle a reaction, up-to-date medications and a recent photo of your child. Make sure your child understands everything about the meal regimen and the camp’s allergy safety plan and that he or she can clearly verbalize needs.
Then with all safety precautions in place, the slate is cleared for fun.
Anastasia Poulos, now 17, says she would love to return to AAIA camp one day as a counselor.
“I would teach the kids that they can surpass any obstacles if they set their minds to it,” she says. “Nothing should stop them from living their dreams.”
If those dreams include attending camp, it’s important for all parties involved to communicate about the best way to provide a safe and enjoyable experience.
“We have to keep our own concerns in check—give our kids the ability to be like everyone else but create that safe environment for them,” says Munoz-Furlong says. “Everybody has a story about when they went to camp. You want to make sure that there are happy memories and that the story is a good one.” LW