Sending your child to camp as a parent with food allergy fears

Ali Wicks-Lim
Posted by Ali Wicks-Lim

Date: Wednesday, 21 March 2018. -  
Food Allergies, Food at camp

Sending a child to a sleep away camp for the first time is not easy. Social media and parenting magazines are quick to offer reassuring check lists and comforting words to worried parents and I’m sure they work, for some of us.

If sending a child to sleep away camp is a challenge, then sending a child with life-threatening food allergies to sleep away camp is a trust fall.

When I turned to those spaces I found recommendations for how to best label clothing so that I might see it again, helpful tips for getting your child to remember to wear sunscreen, comparative analysis on the benefits of natural verses chemical bug spray, book lists about everything from helping your shy child make friends to managing homesickness.

It seemed like almost every concern a parent might have was addressed, except the one that was keeping me up at night. While other parents were fearing poison ivy and wringing their hands about whether their children were going to eat balanced meals without their supervision, I was worrying that my child would eat the wrong thing at camp, and die. If sending a child to sleep away camp is a challenge, then sending a child with life-threatening food allergies to sleep away camp is a trust fall.

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My son has anaphylactic allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, which means that not only can he not ingest those foods but he can’t ingest any foods that may have come into contact with those foods. For our family this means a lot of label-reading, cooking from scratch to avoid cross-contamination, caution around any food that we don’t prepare ourselves, and a significant amount of communication and proactive planning to make it all work. I will be honest, the thought of handing those high-stakes responsibilities over to someone else for two whole weeks was completely overwhelming to me. Did you know that two weeks of camp is FORTY-TWO meals?! I do, I did the math. And that’s just the actual meals! In an effort to reassure parents of non- allergic kids that their children will not go hungry, camp websites are quick to list all of the wonderful food options they offer. Mid-day snacks! S’more’s around the fire! Ice cream novelties! Cookies before bed! These promises have the opposite effect on parents like me. Most of the time for kids like mine each special food represents a difficult decision which ultimately boils down to either a risk, or a disappointment. I mistakenly assumed that this would be the case at any camp as well. The thought of not being there to make sure my son asks the right questions, help him make a safe choices and minimize the disappointment of being the one kid who cannot have the treat (again) is a tough one. Imagining my child having a serious allergic reaction when I am too far away to help is too scary for words. Whenever I considered the possibility of summer camp for my son I arrived at the conclusion that at best it would create more stress than fun, for him. And at worst it could be dangerous, even life-threatening. At the same time, I have great memories of sleep-away camp and I so wanted that experience for my son. I stayed in exactly this place for several years.

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And then one day I met Sue Lein, Director of Camp Emerson. She was standing at a table at a food allergy conference and I chatted with her as I watched as my son flip enthusiastically through a booklet about camp, already pointing out the things he wanted to do. Sue was so encouraging, but I half expected that when I listed my son’s allergies and the severity of them she might become more concerned about having him there. Instead she listened carefully, and responded with total confidence that they could take care of him. She had answers to questions I didn’t even know to ask. A full time nurse on site 24/ 7? Yes! An entire staff trained in epinephrine use? Yes! Epi-pens available all over camp? Yes! Safe, healthy meals for kids with allergies? Of course! In fact the entire camp is peanut, tree nut, sesame and shellfish free, so for the first time in my son’s life he would be able to eat ANYTHING the other kids were eating. But Camp Emerson goes beyond even that. They go out of their way to provide all the special treats that kids like mine usually miss out on. Safe s’mores, ice cream sundaes, cookies and treats was more than my son had ever even thought to wish for. Usually the key to his safety is to be left out of those things. At Camp Emerson if there was a treat, he could have it. As my son later put it; “It is like going on vacation and leaving your food allergies at home.”

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Somewhere during my conversation with Sue I ran out of reasons not to send my son to sleep-away camp. I will never forget how when I told him he could go he raised his arms in the air and shouted “YES!!!” I will always be grateful that Camp Emerson was able to offer my son something I could not - an opportunity to just be a kid, at summer camp. As his camp dates neared I experienced everything from the great excitement of sitting with him while he chose his camp activities (something I never thought I’d get to do) to the awake-at-night fear of all of the worst case scenarios I could imagine. I thought about all the moms whose biggest worries were that their kids wouldn’t wear a sweatshirt when the sun went down and I was so envious.

Nevertheless, one day in July we arrived to find a small ocean of staff in blue Camp Emerson shirts, each one friendly and responsive to my questions. And somewhere in the eye of that enthusiastic storm was Sue. She was so confident that I couldn’t help but be reassured. By then she had put in the time and built trust with me. You see, throughout the process of sending Mason to camp I probably asked Sue a couple hundred questions and she was endlessly patient and reassuring. Most importantly she never treated my son’s allergies like something that imposed a burden on her, and believe me, I know that it is work to be as careful as she and her staff are! Leaving Mason in the hands of Sue and her staff was an absolute trust fall, but a calculated one.

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I am not going to pretend it was easy to say goodbye. I left my son at his cabin and walked away without looking back, so he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes. I will even admit that I somewhat compulsively scanned the daily photo uploads from camp, just wanting to see his face and know he was ok. And you know what? He was more than ok. It turns out that a half hour after we left he was at a make-your-own sundae bar, something he’d never experienced outside of the small versions we tried to create at home. His first letter listed every single thing he put on his sundae. The rest were about sailing and pottery and video-editing and his new friend who was just like him in so many ways, and how nice everyone was, and how thankful he was to be there. Camp Emerson made my son feel safe and welcome and included. It gave him a break from all of the allergy-management that can get in the way of just being a kid. The staff there go out of their way to create over-the-top fun, special experiences for their campers, and my son soaked up as much of it as he possibly could.

On pick-up day I couldn’t get there fast enough but not because I was afraid, I just couldn’t wait to see my son and hear about all his adventures. And when we pulled into camp he was right there, grinning from ear to ear. He looked older somehow, and sleepy from a late night end-of-camp celebration, but he was as happy as I’ve ever seen him. And you know what? Not even a sunburn! I wouldn’t have cared if he was covered in bug bites and poison ivy and had lost every article of clothing he’d brought. That smile was worth it.

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