Monday, August 25, 2008

Back to School Volunteering

First day of school.

The new clothes. The new backpack. The new lunch box. The new scissors. The new binder. The new haircut. The new EpiPens.

For my son, it’s back to the school morning rush, the homework, and the little social dramas that make up the school day. It’s back to a regular schedule and regular bedtimes and regular dinners.

For me, it’s back to my second volunteer job (in addition to my regular job and my other volunteer job). All school year, I volunteer in my son’s school. My son loves for me to be there. At 4th grade, he’s still happy to see me walk into his classroom. He even hugs me. It’s gratifying to see that as much as he wants to hurry up and become a grumpy, angst-ridden, sullen teenager, there’s still my little sunshiny kid inside there. So I carve a few hours out of my crazy work schedule to spend time in the classroom.

There’s another benefit to my being in the school every week that my son doesn’t realize. And, no, I don’t just mean that I can spy on him when I’m sitting in the back of the room sorting math worksheets. Because I’m in there so often, the teachers get to know me. They know they can count on me. They get to know me on a friendly basis, and we develop a sort of relationship that is much stronger than it would be if we only saw each other once every semester at those slightly nerve-wracking parent-teacher conferences.

That kind of relationship comes in handy when you have a food-allergic kid. If the only time they ever saw me was when I had a worry or a complaint about food in the classroom, I don’t think they’d ever be very happy to see me. I would become “THAT” mom, and no one ever enjoys being "THAT" mom. "THAT" moms seldom succeed in getting teachers to accommodate them willingly.

I’ve also found that just seeing me in the hallway often reminds teachers to ask me about upcoming food issues, like whether they can have salsa and chips on Cinco de Mayo. I’ve heard the sentence, “Oh, you just reminded me… tomorrow we’re doing such and such with food, is that okay?” so many times, that I know they’d never remember to call me and ask about these things before-hand. So by being visible to them on a weekly basis, I jog their memory and keep the food allergy issues at the front of their mind. Otherwise, I’m sure they’d forget.

I understand. Teachers are just as frantically busy as I am. When ever hour of the day is filled with half-a-dozen urgent tasks, we forget things. We have good intentions. But we still forget.

So I take a deep breath, set my alarm a little earlier, and work a couple of hours of volunteering into my weekly schedule. It makes my son happy. It makes the teachers happy. It makes the other kids in school who have allergies happy (even if they don’t know it).

And it makes me happy (even if I’m grumbling about the less-than-attractive bags under my eyes), because it makes the school a little bit safer for my son. After all, I want him to use the new scissors, the new backpack, and the new lunch box. But I don’t want him to use those new EipPens. Not even once.

Monday, August 18, 2008

It's Back to School Time!

First things first: Oksana Chusovitina won the silver medal last night! Yea! (I’m not even going to mention how it should have been a gold, and Alicia Sacramone should have gotten the bronze. No siree. Not gonna mention it.)

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system…

As of today, there is one more week of freedom for my son. One more week of staying up too late, hanging out with friends, reveling in the glorious sunshiny afternoons of summer vacation.

Then, blammo! Just like that, it will be all over, and then it’s back to uniforms, lunchboxes, worksheets, sitting still at a desk all day, asking permission to go to the bathroom, and worst of all – homework.

My son is refusing to think about it. As far as he’s concerned, life is one big summer, punctuated by annoying periods of darkness called school, which he effectively wipes from his memory every June.

Whether or not HE wants to think about it, I HAVE to. And so do a lot of other parents. That’s why back-to-school was the topic of discussion at our Davis County chapter meeting of UFAN last week.

We welcomed six new families to our group last week. Some were newly diagnosed with food allergies and trying to find out how to adjust to a new way of thinking about food. Others have been living with food allergies for a while, but are facing preschool or school for the first time. Some came from as far away as West Jordan and Riverton. Others were from here in Layton.

We talked about ways to prepare for the new school year – one member described how she just showed her daughter’s kindergarten class the Alexander the Elephant food allergy video from FAAN (Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network), which helps explain the seriousness of food allergies to kids.

We also discussed food allergy tables in the lunchroom, ways to minimize contact with peanut butter and milk on doorknobs and trashcans, and giving presentations to teachers.

From there, we ranged onto other topics that always seem to be seething just below the surface – why family members are often the hardest to convince that food allergies are both real and as serious as we say, how to fly in a plane full of peanuts, how you have to read labels EVERY TIME in case a manufacturing process or recipe changes, and how to cook when family members are allergic to drastically different things.

It was a lively discussion, and on that left us all with new ideas, new suggestions – and a few new worries. Of course, that’s the way life is. But it also left us looking forward to next month’s meeting, to seeing what new things we can share.

Last spring, I posted some tips for dealing with your child’s school. I’ll repeat them here, in the hopes that they help smooth the way for other parents this week. Good luck, and enjoy these remaining few days of summer. I know my son is.

1. Volunteer a lot, so the staff knows you and counts on you (not just for allergy issues). If the only time they see you is when there's a food allergy, then you may start feeling like they're whispering "Oh no, here she comes again." But if they see you as a "Gosh, what would we do without her" kind of volunteer, then the occasional food issue will be coming from a great mom who's making a reasonable request.

2. If someone else is already the class mom, or you can't volunteer for that position, tell the teacher you really need to attend all parties and field trips because of the food allergy. The teacher may want to let the other parents know that you'll be selected for all the special events because of the food allergy, so that they don't think the teacher is playing favorites or something.

3. Ask the principal if there are other food allergic kids in the same grade, and if they can be assigned to the same teacher. That makes it easier for the allergic parents to trade off field-trip and party chaperone duties, it puts all the kids in the same class so that the classroom can be more allergen-free, and gives you some backup in food issues. (It's nice to NOT be the only one.) Statistically, about one in twenty kids has a food allergy, so chances are good there will be more kids than just your child.

4. Volunteer to shop for all the snacks or food materials for classroom parties or food educational units (like making noodle necklaces or gingerbread houses, etc.). Tell the teacher if she'll collect money donations, you'll go buy all the ingredients. They're usually delighted to get out of having to shop.

5. Make several copies of your Food Allergy Action Plan (see FAAN’s website) and ask to hang one in the office, the cafeteria kitchen, and the classroom, so that your child's photo and "What to do in case of a reaction" instructions are handy no matter where he is.

6. Practice with your child what he should do if he "feels funny." Role-play and pretend you're the teacher, and have him come up and tell you what's wrong. Often our kids are too shy about asking for help, so have him practice with you, and with the teacher if possible. Not only does that give your child words to use if something happens, but it helps impress upon the teacher how important it is.

7. I get on my principal's staff meeting agenda at the first of the year and give a 5-minute talk about allergies and demonstrate the EpiPen. I also give a presentation to my son's class, and all the teachers and aides he comes into contact with. If you're not comfortable doing this, ask if there are other allergic parents that you can contact. Talk to them about ways to teach the teachers -- maybe another mom would be willing to give the presentation if you make the photocopies. It's easier when there are two of you involved!

8. Remember, In Utah, your child can legally carry his EpiPen. But he probably can't administer it to himself in an emergency, so make sure the teachers and everyone else know where it is and how to use it. My son carries his in his backpack so that it's always in the classroom, and I also fill a second prescription and they keep it in the office. So he has two sets at school.

9. If he's going to be having lunch at school, talk to the Lunch Lady and cafeteria monitor. Introduce your child, tell her what your child is allergic to, and let your child know that the Lunch Lady is a friend that will help keep him safe. Then remember the Lunch Lady and the cafeteria monitor on holidays with little thank you cards or gifts to show you appreciate them. Few people do that. But it will help keep your child's food issues fresh in their mind, and they'll get to know him well.

10. Ask about setting up a food table just for allergic kids. All that’s required is a table with a sign that says allergies only, and the cafeteria monitors clean it with a separate marked bucket and cloth. Don’t let them make your child eat in a separate room or the principal’s office. He shouldn’t be punished just because he’s allergic to some foods! Ask the principal to mention the allergy table in a newsletter or other information that goes home with kids at the beginning of the year. You may find other kids with allergies expressing an interest in sitting at the table if they know it’s available.

11. Ask the parents of your child’s friends to send safe lunches with them every once in a while, so they can eat with your child. Make it a fun place to be!

12. Most peanut-allergic kids don’t react to the smell of peanut butter in the air, but a few do. If you are worried if your child will react to the air in the cafeteria, ask to take him in for a “practice run” right now. Sit in the cafeteria for half an hour and see if he reacts. If he doesn’t, cross that worry off your list.

13. Eat lunch with him for the first few days. That will reassure both of you that you can both handle this!

14. Talk to the teacher about which cafeteria door your child should use to avoid peanut butter contact (usually the one furthest from the playground), where to put his lunch bag after lunch, and where his EpiPens will be.

15. Remind your child NOT to throw away his lunch trash. Tell him to bring it home in his lunch bag, so that he can avoid using the trash can. If another kid slam-dunks a half-full milk carton in the trash can, you don’t want your milk-allergic child to get splashed.

16. Be aware and be prepared, but don't panic! School is going to be a lot of fun, and your child will do just fine. And believe it or not, so will you!

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Olympic Hero in Every Mom

When we are young, we think we are strong. We feel immortal. We feel powerful. We feel limitless and chosen.

Then we have a child. Suddenly, we are reduced to bumbling, stupid weaklings. It takes every ounce of strength we thought we had just to make it through another sleepless night. When our baby cries, we cry, undone by the helplessness of not knowing why he’s crying. We despair, thinking our parenting skills inadequate to raising a child capable of thriving in a suddenly dangerous world.

When our child is sick, we grow sick with worry. When our child stumbles, our soul is bruised. When our child’s heart breaks over some perceived injustice, our heart shatters.

I never knew how weak I was until I had a child.

Last night, I was watching the Olympics like several million other human beings on this planet (and probably a few on the international space station), and I saw one of those pithy little overly sentimental profiles that they run periodically to give a “human interest” angle to some of the athletes. The profile introduced us to Oksana Chusovitina.

My definition of strength changed in the course of a few minutes.

Oksana Chusovitina is a gymnast. She’s in her fifth Olympics. She’s 33. She’s more than twice the age of most of her competitors. And she’s a mom of a boy who has fought leukemia.

And she nailed that vault. Twice.

The fact that she’s been competing for 20 years in a sport that exacts so high a physical price that most competitors peak at the age of 17 or 18 is impressive. That alone deserves high praise. To keep her body performing at that level for decade after decade is truly a Herculean feat.

The fact that she’s competed for three different countries (the Unified—formerly Soviet—team, Uzbekistan, and now Germany), during her Olympic career is incredible.

The fact that she’s able to put up with all those squabbling, giggling, petty teenagers surrounding her for so many years is commendable.

The fact that she was able to continue that grueling training and get her body back into competing shape after she had a baby is practically miraculous (as all of us who have struggled to lose those extra baby fat pounds know).

But it all pales when you learn that when she discovered her child had leukemia, her world turned upside down. Faced with a lack of cancer hospitals in her home country of Uzbekistan, she made a life-altering choice. She called a gymnastics acquaintance in Germany and asked for help.

Most of us don’t like to ask for help. Ever. We’ll tie ourselves into pretzels before ever asking anyone else to hold the door for us as we wrestle with 6 bags of groceries. We think it’s a sign of weakness to ask anyone for help. And we want to think of ourselves as strong, of course.

But Oksana asked for help. And the head coaches of a gymnastics club in Cologne, Germany, gave it to her. She moved to Germany where her son began cancer treatment, and she began training with the German club. Because of residency requirements, she couldn’t compete for Germany for three years, so she continued to compete for Uzbekistan while she trained in Germany, all while her son slowly recovered from his leukemia.

In 2006, she finally gained German citizenship, so this year she is a proud member of the German team. And her son, according to the profile last night, is healthy and pretty darn good at doing backbends, himself.

I wonder if Oksana would have retired from gymnastics by now if she’d had a healthy boy who didn’t need expensive, drastic cancer treatments. I’m sure she wouldn’t have uprooted her tiny family and moved to a completely different country, away from family, friends, and familiar routines. But the things we do to save our children are the things we do without thinking about them, without considering consequences to our own lives or bodies, without hesitation, and without fear.

When it comes to loving our children, we are fierce, and tireless, and strong beyond all measure.

Oksana won her first Olympic medal before any of her teammates were even born, and there’s a good chance she could win another one this week at the age of 33, but that isn’t want makes this woman strong. It’s that she had a child, and she makes herself strong to keep him strong.

Go Oksana. Grab that medal. Or not. Whether you win or lose, millions of us mothers feel a little stronger today because of you.

You’re everything an Olympic hero should be, and more: you’re a mom.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Guest Blogger Kim Martin: Our First Child-Free Vacation

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that Kim Martin is one of my dearest friends, and one of her sons has food allergies and happens to be my son's best friend. Last week, Kim and her husband took a short vacation for the first time without their kids. (The kids thought it was great to have fun 4-day sleepovers with friends. My son thought having a brother for a few days was a blast!) I asked Kim if she'd like to blog about what it was like to spend some quality time with her husband for a change. Enjoy!


This past week I did the unthinkable. For the first time in over ten years, I left my children behind and went on vacation with my neglected husband. We had never left the kids for many reasons (e.g., they would miss us, we would be miss them, and the biggest: who would safely feed our son who is allergic to milk, eggs, nuts, peanuts, seafood, sesame seeds, raw tomato and raw peaches). Now it seemed we had nothing to hold us back. The kids now ten, eight, and six, are old enough to understand that we will be back, we will call and talk to them, and we have amazing friends that understand food allergies and always have forethought about allergies when making decisions for our children. I was out of excuses!

My husband and I began out journey to San Diego at the Salt Lake City airport. We missed breakfast in our frantic attempt to return library books and rented movies before leaving town. We decided that before the flight we should grab a snack from one of the shops in the airport. We shared with each other that even though our son was not with us we needed to choose something nut-free out of respect for those flying with nut allergies. Oh, how our thinking has changed over the years!

We arrived in sunny California and went straight to Seaport Village. We set out for a lunch of seafood and a stroll along the beach with ice cream cones. It felt strange to eat and snack without reading ingredients or packing safe alternatives. We left food allergies behind for four days and three nights. Or did we? Yes, we could eat these foods and not worry about kissing our son and having a reaction, but our daily habits were to remain. We still found that we must wash our hands before touching things. After all, I would be returning home with the purse I carried with me to the restaurant. This had become our life and it’s a nice one. We don’t mind it. We just do it.

My husband and I talked of having “unsafe” food in our hotel room. Before food allergies we both loved nuts and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. We planned to visit the store and stock up on the contraband. I think we both thought we missed it more than we actually did, because we never went to the store. Sometimes we hear people in our life glamorize food and the taste and start to feel like maybe we are missing something. I found when given the choice we didn’t choose it anyway. These talks I give my kids about food and its use in nourishing the body, not to shove it into your body for taste, have found their way into my thinking, too. How interesting.

As a couple we spent our time focusing on each other. We found we weren’t missing anything from our previous life before food allergies (except energy and enough hours in the day).

It’s amazing to me what becomes important in life when faced with obstacles. For us, it’s our marriage, our three children, family, and having such amazing friends. These friends made it possible to go on vacation without even considering food allergies into the equation. Yes, we have had to overcome some big obstacles, but I feel like this is the happiest, luckiest, most amazing time of my life. I couldn’t ask for more.