Monday, March 28, 2011

School Nurses -- So Few but So Valuable

by Kelley Lindberg

Do you remember being young, getting sick at school, and going to see the school nurse?

That’s not an experience most of our children will ever have.

As the VP for the Utah Food Allergy Network (UFAN), I spent two days last week with a table at the Utah School Nurse Association’s annual convention, meeting Utah’s remaining school nurses and talking with them about food allergies. As we chatted, I asked them how many schools they were responsible for.

The numbers were frightening.

A handful of nurses worked in only one or two schools – most of them charter or private schools. Most of the public school nurses would blink back the hysterical look in their eye, smile bravely, then tell me how many schools they had under their wing – 6, 8, 10, or even 23. One man told me he was a Physician’s Assistant in a clinic, the sole medical provider in his entire rural county, and he’d contracted with that county to be their only school nurse.

The school nurse role is no longer the first line of defense for our children while they’re at school. In many ways, the school nurse has become strictly a consultant. They try to train teachers and administrators to watch for signs of flu or chicken pox. They help make sure action plans are in place at the start of the year for kids with diabetes, heart conditions, asthma, or food allergies, and that the staff understands how to implement them. They remind administrators about vaccination requirements.

But it seems like very few get to interact directly with our children anymore.

That’s a sad but unavoidable result of our constant education cut-backs.

Understanding that we’ll probably never reverse the trend of squeezing funding for basic teacher salaries, let alone school nurse funding, what can we parents do?

First, we must recognize that we are our children’s strongest and fiercest protectors. Although the school nurses would do more if they could, we cannot depend on anyone else to champion our children’s health, so we must be willing to do it ourselves.

We have to educate ourselves on what our child’s health concerns really mean, how to effectively keep them safe, and how to balance that need to keep them safe with the needs of the other 25 or more kids in the class.

We must shoulder the responsibility for training the teachers, lunchroom staff, and office staff to recognize food allergy reactions and administer EpiPens, and work with them to ensure the entire experience feels as “normal” as possible so that no one – on either side of the table – feels ostracized or bullied.

We must work with our own allergists to create a workable medical action plan. (If you don’t have one, use FAAN’s food allergy action plan, which is in common use by many allergists.)

And we must find out who our school nurse is, even if he or she is only in our school for one day a week or less, and work with that nurse, making sure we’re both on the same page and not working at cross purposes.

Because even if the school nurses are spread far too thin across far too many schools and miles, they are still trying their very best to build safety into our children’s school experience.

I was delighted – and a little surprised – at how crowded my Utah Food Allergy Network table was at the convention. At every break, nurses would stop and talk to me about food allergies, asking questions like “Is coconut a tree nut?” or “Do the foods have to be ingested to cause a reaction, or is skin contact bad, too?” They were sharing stories of food-allergic kids they had and some of the policies they’d put into place to help them. They were asking why food allergies seem to be growing so much more common.

And just about every single nurse I talked to signed up to join our UFAN school nurse email list, so that we could send them updates about things like food allergy guidelines, new legislation, or other information that could help them do their herculean jobs more efficiently.

They care. They work extremely hard. And they want to learn more. We parents can help them, and they will do what they can to help us.

Thank you, school nurses everywhere.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Creative Easter Egg Fillers

by Kelley Lindberg

It’s fun being a creative mom. Or so I’ve been told.

Most days, I’m feeling far too tired/frazzled/exhausted/rushed/over-scheduled/overwhelmed to even think about being creative. So I love it when someone else is creative for me, and then I can just steal their ideas. Don’t you?

In that spirit, I’m offering some creative Easter Egg ideas, so that you can steal them and simplify your Easter celebrations! And I know there are other parents out there with even better ideas, so PLEASE post them in the comments! With food allergies, filling the eggs with candy isn’t always an option. (And even without allergies, who wants their kids hopped up on all the sugar anyway?) So here are some candy-free ideas.

First, a quick tip: Oriental Trading Co. is a wonderful resource for small, cheap novelty toys to go into Easter eggs. You can buy eggs pre-filled with toys and stickers (super-easy!), or you can buy small toys, erasers, bouncy balls, or jewelry to fill your own. (You can also order empty eggs and even jumbo-sized empty eggs that will hold larger toys or dollar bills,) Most of their novelties come in quantities of a dozen or more. Not sure you want to buy 12 of something? Talk to other parents and see if they'll go in with you on an order, then split up the toys between you. I’ve done that several times, and it works out great.

Most of the party stores in town seem to get a lot of their supplies from Oriental Trading Co., too, so if you just need a few things, try the party stores or the party aisle at discount and pharmacy stores like Walmart, Target, or Rite-Aid.

Now for some ideas:
  • At Oriental Trading Co.’s website, don’t just look at the Easter-themed novelties. Check out all the toys, from glow rings to mini plush animals, from surf-board necklaces to water squirters, from tiny flashlights to mini skateboards. They even have small, inexpensive craft kits.
  • Summer is coming – look for sidewalk chalk (open the package and put each chalk in a different egg), bubbles, pool diving toys, or foam water balls. Putting 2 or 3 water balloons in each egg is cheap and will get them well-supplied for that first water-balloon fight of the season!
  • UFAN member Suzanne suggests buying a Legos set, then putting a few pieces into each egg, and the instruction book in their basket. Got more than one kid? Color-code the eggs so each kid knows which eggs he can collect, so the sets don’t get mixed up.
  • Got a girl who’s into Polly Pockets or Barbie? Buy a few clothing sets, open them, and put the clothes and accessories into each egg.
  • For boys, take HotWheels cars, Bakugan balls, BeyBlades, or Nerf Darts out of the packages and put them in the eggs. (You’ll need jumbo-sized eggs for most of these things.)
  • For girls, try hair accessories in every color, fingernail stickers, or rolls of ribbon to make their own bike streamers or hair decorations.
  • For older kids, try trading cards, Silly Bandz, friendship bracelets, lip gloss, nail polish, guitar picks, earrings, sweat bands, cool shoelaces, magnets for their school locker, key rings, bicycle spoke clip-ons, or marbles.
  • Try craft supplies, like beading, sand art, mosaics, clay (make sure it’s allergen-free), ribbons, embroidery thread, cotton loops for weaving pot-holders, wire, paints for model-building, and foam pieces. Break up the sets and put the big pieces in the basket, and little pieces in the eggs.
  • Is your child a budding gardener? How about packets of seeds?
  • Last year, my son got The Big Book of Boy Stuff in his basket, then found eggs with the things that are used in the book’s activities, like dice, kick sacks (for juggle balls), and marbles.
  • Is your child saving up to buy something special, like an iPod or video game? Put coins or bills in each egg, along with a note or a little picture of the item to show her what the money’s for.
  • Is there a family trip coming up? Again, put money in the eggs with a note that says what it’s for, or pictures of the place you’re going. Headed to Europe? Order Euros from your bank and hide them in your child’s eggs. If you don’t want younger kids carrying real money, print fake money (like the Lego Loot or Mickey Money I made for my son when we went to California one year). Then tell them they can trade the money to you for souvenirs – it gives them a lesson on managing money without you worrying that they’ll lose it along the way.
  • Just want to focus on the basket or one larger gift? Fill the eggs with clues to find the basket. Each egg can have a clue that points to the next egg, which points to the next egg, and so on until the child finds the basket.
  • One more tip: If you’re hiding the eggs outside, be aware that if the kids open the eggs outside, they may lose the contents in the grass. So if you’re using tiny things that will be a problem if they get lost (like Lego pieces or Barbie’s new shoes), discuss the rules ahead of time – if you want them to bring all the eggs inside before they open them, be sure they understand, and make it part of the fun to keep the surprise until everyone is inside and can see.
Well, that’s what I came up with so far. If you’ve got a good idea for filling eggs, please, please share it, so that all of us frazzled moms and dads can steal your idea and make our kids’ Easter more fun. Like UFAN member Suzanne told me, “The most important thing is making sure our kids don't get gypped on holidays.”

Monday, March 14, 2011

Food-Allergy-Safe Easter Candy Round-Up

by Kelley Lindberg

Once again, it’s time for my annual food-allergy-safe Easter Candy Round-Up! Easter is still six weeks away, but don’t wait too long, especially if you have to order online.

Every year I hit a few stores looking for typical Easter candy – specifically jelly beans and chocolate bunnies. What I find varies from year to year. Just because something was allergen-free last year doesn’t mean it will be this year, because manufacturers can change factories and suppliers with alarming frequency. And sometimes different package sizes and packages in different parts of the country will carry different ingredient warnings, too, because they were produced in different factories. So double-check every single ingredients label before you buy anything, even if I’ve included it in my list here.

For nut-free and egg-free chocolate bunnies, your best bet is Hershey’s. I found a 6-inch solid Hershey’s “Magic Bunny” at Walmart, and a package of 6 Hershey’s solid chocolate bunnies at both Wal-Mart and Smith’s (but avoid the package of 6 “cookies and cream” flavored Hershey’s bunnies, because they have a nut warning). Target has several nut-free Hershey’s chocolate bunnies – a Princess Bunny, Speedy Bunny, Snap-Apart Bunny, etc. Some flavors of Hershey’s kisses are also nut-free, as well as Hershey’s mini foil-wrapped chocolate eggs. But double-check labels – many Hershey’s products have nut warnings, so don’t assume they’re safe until you check. And remember, all Hershey’s chocolate includes milk and soy.

To avoid additional allergens like milk and soy, head for the online candy manufacturers. There are several online sources with really yummy allergen-friendly chocolate in lots of fun holiday shapes. (See my list below.)

Looking for jelly beans or mini egg- and bunny-shaped candies? Here are some that are free from the Big Eight. All contain corn, however, and most contain artificial dyes. A few may contain soy lecithin, but I tried to screen for that (but I apologize if I missed one or two). I checked Wal-Mart and Smith’s, but I know most of these are also carried by other grocery stores.
  • Skittles Blenders (Wal-Mart $1/box)
  • Sour Patch Bunnies (Wal-Mart $1/box)
  • Swedish Fish Eggs (Wal-Mart $1/box)
  • Starburst jelly beans (Wal-Mart and Smiths)
  • Jolly Rancher jelly beans (Walmart and Smiths)
  • Jelly Belly gourmet jelly beans, smoothie blend, and sours (Wal-Mart $2)
  • LifeSavers jelly beans (Smiths $2.19)
  • LifeSavers Gummies Bunnies & Eggs (Smith’s $2.19)
  • Kroger jelly beans (Smith’s $0.79)
  • Nerds Bumpy Jelly beans (Smith’s $2.19)
  • Wonka Spree jelly beans (Smith’s $2.19)
  • Private Selection Gourmet Jelly Beans, 41 flavors (Smith’s $3)
Walmart also has some cute giant marshmallow lollipops for $1 that were free from the Big 8.

Luckily, several great online manufacturers and grocers offer allergy-friendly chocolates and candies for every holiday and just about every type of allergy. So check out these sites, but be sure to order in plenty of time (Easter is April 24).
  • Allergies and Me:  This is a great find for gluten-free candy and other allergen-free candies.
  • Vermont Nut Free:  Their chocolates are peanut-free and nut-free, but they do have milk and egg warnings on them.
  • Divvies: Nut-free, dairy-free, and egg-free chocolate bunnies, and jelly beans.
  •  This online grocer sells allergy-friendly foods from several vendors, but they also sell some candy manufactured in Canada’s nut-free and peanut-free factories, so it’s worth checking out.
  • Amanda’s Own Confections: They offer a whole line of chocolate goodies for Easter and Passover, as well as jelly beans and other candies, all dairy-free, nut-free, egg-free, and gluten-free.
  • Chocolate Emporium: Read the ingredients carefully on this website, but they do offer a lot of kosher (parve) chocolate items for Passover and Easter. Call before you order to ensure you get what you need, allergen-wise.
  • Peanut Free Planet: This site sells candy from lots of different manufacturers, including Vermont Nut Free and Amanda’s Own. You’ll find chocolate, jelly beans, and all sorts of allergen-friendly groceries.
  • Yummy Earth: Yummy Earth candies (lollipops, gummy bears) are corn-free, as well as being free from the big 8, and they use natural colorings and flavorings. They’re available in health food stores, and from here: Yummy Earth Organic Lollipops. Yummy Earth Organic Gummy Bears.
  • Indie Candy: Check out the gorgeous crystal sugar flower-shaped lollipops on this site (no dyes or common allergens at all!). They have a large selection of confections and let you search by your specific allergy needs.
  • Oriental Trading Co.: Remember, Easter eggs and Easter baskets don’t have to be filled with candy. Oriental Trading Company offers a bazillion (I counted them) little novelty toys that fit inside Easter eggs or into Easter baskets, and you can buy them by the dozen or more. And for the ultimate in time-saving, you can even buy plastic eggs pre-filled with little toys. Now THAT’s a helpful Easter Bunny.
Hope this helps. Next week, I’ll offer some ideas for non-food Easter Egg hunts. Hoppy shopping!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Friends In Need, Friends Indeed

by Kelley Lindberg

About a week ago, my friend Kim and I chaperoned our sons’ sixth grade field trip. Her son is my son’s best friend (those of you who read this blog regularly know all about this dynamic duo of food-allergic buddies). My son is allergic to nuts and peanuts, while her son is allergic to tree nuts, peanuts, milk, eggs, seafood, and a few other things.

Now, the great thing about having 12-year-old kids is that they’re getting old enough to self-manage a lot of the food allergy issues that scare us mothers. They can read labels, they can tell their friends about their allergies, they can skip the cupcakes at birthday parties without a second thought, and they can notice things like Reese’s wrappers on the seat of the school bus and avoid them. Sure, they’re still boys, and that implies a lot of … well, you know, those “what were you thinking” moments (and we know those will get a lot more common as they become full-fledged teenagers). But for the most part, we’ve been happy with how they’re slowly learning to be responsible for their own health.

But Kim and I still volunteer to chaperone field trips, just so we can be close if something happens. (Once a paranoid mom, always a paranoid mom.)

Anyway, at the end of this particular field trip, the facility we were visiting surprised us all with full-sized candy bars for all 100 kids. Exciting for the kids, momentary panic for me and Kim.

So here’s what happened. From the candy bars offered, my son selected the one that he knew was nut-free (the plain Hershey’s bar), and so did his best friend. The best friend can’t eat the Hershey’s bar, but he grabbed one anyway so he could give it to my son. My son then promptly handed him the Twizzler that he received earlier for answering a question correctly. Happy trade.

But that’s not the end of the story. 100 kids piled onto two school buses, armed with Reese’s, Almond Hershey’s, Babe Ruths, and all sorts of other nut-loaded candy. One of the teachers came up to me, apologizing for the candy, but it was too late – the kids were already ripping into them. I knew that my son would be sitting with his buddy, and that Kim was with them, so I squashed my worries and trusted her to keep them safe. (I was in charge of a different group of kids, so I wasn’t sitting with my own son. Go figure.)

When we got back to the school, Kim came off the bus with a huge grin on her face. I asked her if the boys were okay, and she said they were better than okay. When they got on the bus, my son, Kim’s son, and another of their good friends who is aware of the 2 boys’ allergies all shared a single seat, and they put Kim’s son (who has the most allergies) in the middle, so that he was shielded from everyone else. Then my son and the third friend just tucked their candy bars in their pockets, refusing to eat them until they got home.

And all of this happened without Kim saying a word. All three boys just matter-of-factly leaped into action to keep the two allergic ones safe. No questions, no discussion, no help from the worried moms. They simply handled it.

Moral of the story? I see two:

1. Managing food allergies really does get easier for parents as our children get older.

2. Nothing beats good friends.

I’ve often written about my son’s circle of friends and how easily they accept his allergies and how hard they work to protect him. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of writing about how grateful I am for these kinds of friends.

My hope is that every food-allergic kid (and adult) out there finds friends like these. They certainly make the world a better, safer, and “friendlier” place for all of us. And if you are one of those friends, thank you from the bottom of our hearts!