Cary News: Community

Wendy Mondello: Food allergy awareness week

When my husband and I were welcoming the birth of our baby boy in May 2003, we had no idea that even a speck of certain foods would have the potential to wreak havoc on his little body or even take our precious son from us. But we were quickly immersed in the world of food allergies when Joseph experienced an anaphylactic reaction to a tiny teaspoon of yogurt when he was 9 months old.

Testing revealed his allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. Sesame and mustard have since been added to his list of allergies, and he has asthma.

At the same time we were celebrating our son’s birth, a group was born that would soon be helping us on our journey in the world of life-threatening food allergies. Families in Cary, Apex and Fuquay-Varina, who were gathering for play dates with their food-allergic children, created NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely) in Spring 2003.

Regina Caldwell, Trish Gavankar, Jenny Kalis, Trish Schiff and Andria Youngberg established the volunteer, parent-run group to provide support, fun and awareness for other local families.

Those efforts are needed more than ever as NC FACES celebrates its 10th year. The group was instrumental in North Carolina’s proclamation recognizing Food Allergy Awareness Week, May 13-19.

The educational effort, which the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) launched in 1998, is essential. According to FAAN, about 15 million Americans have food allergies, double the amount of people who had the medical condition at the start of NC FACES, which now includes more than 350 local families. Children with food allergies often face the pain of bullying and sting of exclusion, and some lose their lives from accidental exposure to allergens.

I am thrilled that NC FACES has helped my family navigate food allergies since Joseph, now 9, was a year old. I found other families in the area who understand the fear when my son has a reaction, can commiserate with me when my son’s life-threatening allergies are not taken seriously, laugh about my initial attempts to bake edible allergen-free treats, and compare notes on which brands of food might be safe.

Thanks to NC FACES, Joseph has had a blast at many activities, such as food-free Easter egg hunts and Halloween parties, a concert with allergy musician Kyle Dine and Durham Bulls baseball games in a peanut-free section.

And I have been able to hear scientists discuss inspiring research, some of which is happening in the Triangle. The annual FAAN Walk for Food Allergy in the area gives Joseph another chance to see that he is not alone while helping to make a difference. Local walk participants have raised more than $100,000 during the past three years to support research and awareness, Youngberg said.

As long as there is no cure for food allergies, groups like NC FACES play a vital role in supporting food-allergic families like mine and helping to raise awareness.

Wendy Mondello is a freelance writer who lives in Morrisville.