Special thanks to Camp Wingate*Kirkland for supporting our educational blog series on managing food allergies at camp. The post is the first in a three-part series.
By: Jill Mindlin
“I want to go to sleepaway camp.” The eight little words that strike terror into the parent of a child with life-threatening food allergies. The first time my daughter announced this she was all of five years old.
She is allergic to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and sesame, and by that age had gone into anaphylactic shock numerous times. I couldn’t even imagine sending her to sleepaway camp. My first strategy was to wait it out and hope she would forget about it. But as she turned six and then seven, it was clear she wasn’t giving up. Fact was, food allergies aside, I knew this was a kid who would thrive at sleepaway camp. I finally realized this was just another in a long list of seemingly insurmountable hurdles that I would have to find a way to surmount for my daughter.
At first I tried to research to find camps that I thought could handle her. I visited over a dozen camps. Just when I thought I was getting close, I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking “I have never even dropped her off on a playdate by herself, how am I going to give her to strangers to feed three meals a day, every day for eight weeks?!”
It was then that I shifted gears. I learned that some camps have a “Food Allergy Coordinator” on staff. My friends recommended that I send her to such a camp. That way there would be someone there to help her navigate what was safe for her to eat in the dining hall. Being between jobs at the time, I decided instead to pitch that position to a camp that didn’t yet have one yet and go myself! So began my six year career as a Food Allergy Coordinator at sleepaway camp.
Food allergy moms (and dads) are used to making the seemingly impossible possible on a daily basis for our kids. Why then should sleepaway camp be any different? As with just about everything else we do, if you approach it by researching, asking the right questions and preparing ahead of time, anything is possible. Kids with food allergies really can enjoy a safe, fun summer at sleepaway camp. Just follow these simple steps
- Assess your family’s comfort level. For some families, who are more risk-averse, they might be most comfortable looking into one-week options at camps that cater specifically to campers with food allergies. Some of these are actually day camps but some are sleepaway camps. These camps are designed specifically for children with food allergies and their siblings, and are generally one or two week long programs. These camps can give campers the experience of sleepaway camp in a highly-controlled setting.
- Do your research! If one of the short-term programs is not right for your family, there are countless other options out there. If you have a local support group or a social media network of families dealing with food allergies, that is the best place to start (and if you don’t have one, you can search FARE’s online directory). Word of mouth can be extremely valuable. Find out where others have gone and had successful experiences and where they haven’t!
- Reach out to organizations like FARE (at foodallergy.org/camps/camp-list) or Food Allergy New York (at foodallergyny.com) for a list of food allergy friendly camps. These organizations cannot endorse the camps or recommend one over the other. The lists are still very helpful though as the camps on the list have generally been vetted by parents of children with food allergies who have had successful experiences there. You can also hire professional companies that help families find just the right camp. These companies can often be a great help with navigating this process, especially for families of children with food allergies.
- Find your fit. Once you have put together a list of viable options, narrow down the list to those camps that would be best for your child, food allergies aside. Is your child a competitive athlete looking for a rigorous sports program or a budding artist hoping to be immersed in the arts all summer long? While many camps are “generalist” and offer something for everyone, some are highly specialized and might be a better fit for your child.
- Once you have narrowed your list, call the camps and speak to the directors over the phone. You will generally get a sense right away if you would feel comfortable trusting them with your child. You can usually tell in less than five minutes if they “get it”. This is also a good time to ask some preliminary questions. Find out generally how food allergies are handled at the camp. Do they have a food allergy coordinator? If not, how do they handle meals for campers with food allergies? How close are they to the nearest hospital? Do they have a doctor or nurse on staff? Some camps will allow you to speak with other families of current campers with food allergies who can answer any follow up questions you have. Ask the camp director if they can provide some families for you to speak with.
- Take your child to visit your select list of camps when camp is in session. (Of course this requires you to do your homework at least a year in advance but it is definitely worth it). You want to see the camp in full swing and get a feel for the environment and if the campers seem to be enjoying themselves. You and your child will usually get a “vibe” one way or the other as to whether this is the camp for them. Some camps even have a “rookie day” where the potential camper is immersed in the camp experience for the day while the parent takes a tour. This is an especially useful tool as it will give your child the truest vision of what it would be like to go to that camp.
- Once you have visited and you are seriously considering a camp, now is the time to ask the follow up questions. Here is where my “insider” experience can be particularly helpful. Before I went to camp with my daughter I imagined they only ate food at meals. Once there I realized there was so much more involved (i.e. daily “milk and cookie” hour, visits to the canteen, bedtime snacks, s’mores). At my camp, I instituted procedures to make sure that all of the campers and counselors with food allergies were safe and included at all times. You want to make sure the camp you choose does too! A few things you can ask about to make sure the same will be true for your child: How is the staff trained in food allergies? Where is the epinephrine kept? How is food served in the cafeteria and how do you serve the campers with food allergies? Are campers with food allergies permitted to sit with their bunks at mealtime? How do you handle special occasions at camp? What is the policy on campers having food in the bunks? How is this policy communicated to the other families? How are sports tournaments and field trips handled?
- Once you have decided on a camp, ask to meet (either in person or virtually) with the health office, chef and food allergy coordinator (if your camp has one) before camp starts. Make sure everyone is knowledgeable about food allergies and will train the adults responsible for your child in how to prevent, recognize and treat an anaphylactic reaction including avoidance tactics, awareness of symptoms and how to use an epinephrine auto-injector. If there doesn’t seem to be someone at the camp comfortable with doing this training, offer to do it yourself!
- Pack whatever it is that your child will need to be safe and happy. Obviously this includes multiple epinephrine auto-injectors, and their food allergy action plan but may include other things as well. I know, for example, that when I was a food allergy coordinator, I always appreciated when the parents sent up some favorite treats for their camper that I could keep in the freezer. That way, if there was a birthday celebration or some other occasion where the food wasn’t safe for the camper, I could pull a little taste of home out of the freezer and make that camper’s day!
- Get ready to say goodbye and smile! Remember, children model their behavior after ours. Your attitude will go a long way towards your child’s success. If you are outwardly scared and appear worried, your child will feel the same way and begin to doubt themselves. Of course, a certain amount of nerves are completely normal and, in fact, can be a healthy reminder of how serious food allergies are and that your child shouldn’t let their guard down. I am simply suggesting that you help your child to feel confident and empowered to make camp a success. (A little insider’s tip: wear sunglasses when you drop them off so they can’t see you crying).
While I know it can seem daunting, sleepaway camp really is doable and it can be a wonderful experience for your child. The most important gift we as parents can give to our children is to make sure they are ready to “take over the reins” when the time comes.
This is much easier if you start when they are young and take steps towards it in an organic way. We are all familiar with the concept of letting our children carry their own epinephrine when they are old enough and then start speaking to managers themselves in restaurants. These are all steps towards having your child take control of their food allergies and their own lives. Letting your child go to sleepaway camp is another very concrete step towards giving them that gift of independence. It can be incredibly empowering for a child with food allergies to realize, “Yes, I can be without my parents for some time and still feel safe!”
During my six year stint as a food allergy coordinator, my daughter often complained that I was there and said numerous times how she wished she could have gone to camp without me. Recently though, at the FARE Teen Summit, the teens were asked to say something that somebody once did for them with regard to food allergies that made them happy. My daughter stood up and said, “Even though I’ve never said ‘thank you’, my Mom gave up six years of her life to enable me to go to sleepaway camp and meet the best friends I’ve ever had and for that I will always be grateful.” That made it all worthwhile.
This blog series is made possible through a gift from Camp Wingate*Kirkland.