Second Thoughts: How to overcome an allergy to empathy
by Jon Mendelson / Tracy Press
Dec 16, 2011 | 13713 views | 5 5 comments | 845 845 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Faith Hall lives in a dangerous world. Milk, cheese, eggs — stuff I couldn’t imagine living without — to her are deadly.

Only 10 years old, Faith has already required 36 shots of adrenaline to keep her lungs and heart from shutting down.

According to her mother, Linda, Faith’s most recent brush with death was in October. Even though the grill that cooked Faith’s food had been cleaned, the lingering presence of a cheeseburger was enough to send her into anaphylactic shock.

That sensitivity makes eating a life-and-death proposition, an awful lot to ask of someone who hasn’t even made it to middle school. But Faith seems to take the ordeal in stride.

“She has a vibrant, infectious spirit. She’s just an amazing, happy girl,” said Hall, with whom I spoke this week. (I didn’t talk with Faith, who was convalescing from a nasty fever.) “She knows her challenges in life.”

While Faith’s ongoing battle hasn’t stopped her from being the apple of her parents’ eyes, it has stopped her from attending school on a regular basis. Even though Faith washes her hands constantly, wears long sleeves and only eats food she knows is safe, her mother said, it remains a perilous environment.

But no healthy 10-year-old can live in isolation. Kids need to play, socialize, learn how to get along with peers and other people. And what better place to get some real social contact than the four annual holiday parties at Hawkins Elementary School?

Problem is, there’s all that deadly food, getting on hands, tables, chairs — not a good bet for Faith or the other 20-plus kids at the school who have “severe” food allergies, Hall said.

So, in addition to a Jefferson School District wellness plan, officials at Hawkins advocate a policy that prohibits items with dairy, egg, nut or shellfish products from classroom celebrations.

The school goes the extra mile, providing a list of 100 items that are allergy-safe — a list with fruit, vegetables and enough kid-friendly goodies to please even sugar-hungry second-graders.

Hawkins Principal Stephanie Gregson told me that equity and safety are at the heart of the idea.

“Our responsibility is to ensure all of our students are safe when they’re here on campus. And that’s the bottom line,” she said.

Right now, Gregson said, the goal is to raise awareness and collect feedback from staff, students and parents.

But while Gregson characterized most of the reactions as compassionate and understanding, Hall said there’s been plenty of pushback from parents who don’t want to be told what treats they can and can’t take to the parties. (One such shindig is scheduled for today.)

These parents would rather the kids with allergies stay home, Hall says, than be inconvenienced by finding cupcakes made sans milk and eggs.

“The biggest response we get is to keep your kids home or teach them not to touch things,” Hall said. “Some of these parents … are basically saying, we don’t want your kid there if your kid is going to be a problem.

“We want parents to realize there is no food more important than a child’s life,” she continued, arguing for the value of empathy.

Looking at the comments of a Thursday News10 story about the issue, you can see the values some people prefer to trade in:

“The rest of the students should not be denied a good time at the expense of a few students.”

“Don’t keep 70% of the class from enjoying themselves because of allergies. The mothers that know about these conditions should prepare their own child’s snacks and tell them to eat nothing else.”

“It is sad that we have parents at our school who feel the need to. Control everything g down to what type of snacks are ok for a clas party. What is next?” (all sic)

“We have the right to be free to pick & choose what foods we eat.”

Sorry folks, this is not a “Don’t Tread On Me” moment.

We’re not talking about detaining American citizens without due process. We’re not even talking about parents who take their children to a haunted house and are scandalized that the kids get scared. We’re talking about snacks at a school party.

When it comes down to it, Hall and Hawkins officials aren’t asking for much.

They don’t suggest that parents abdicate responsibility for educating and protecting their allergy-affected kids. They just think it’d be nice to have four days out of the year in which grade-schoolers with allergies can socialize free from the fear of looming death. All it takes to make it happen is compassion and understanding — maybe a little creativity.

This is a chance for parents to be real role models and show their children what it means to be a part of a community, to care for others, and to sometimes — perish the thought — put the needs of others first.

What a Christmas gift that would be.

• Share your thoughts with editor Jon Mendelson at
Comments-icon Post a Comment
December 22, 2011
Mr. Mendelson ought to read from Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., Colin Campbell, Dean Ornish and John McDougall.

The China Study by Campbell is an excellent read.

December 22, 2011
ugh. gimme a break already.

first, I doubt its 70% normal with 30% deadly allergic. I'm sure its much closer to 99% normal. We don't pave the sidewalks with pillows for hemophiliacs. What a soft squishy world we live in, until they grow up and find out the hard way that the world has presented them with problems that their parents once again have neglected to prepare them for. Now that the school has a no milk policy, and an allergic kid drinks some there, I suppose they can sue the school? While we're at it, lets outlaw 2nd stories, swimming pools, stairs, hard, sharp, or potentially uncomfortable conversation. And don't forget to outlow the Rudolph the red nose reindeer cartoon because of the bullying it promotes. Bahh HUUMbug!
December 22, 2011
I am a person that has a 'severe' food allergy and I approve of this message.

I rely on ME to make sure my throat doesn't close. That is not anyone's responsibility save for me.

I ask lots of questions and sometimes - oh my goodness - I go without certain kinds of food.
July 09, 2014
While I do agree somewhat with this response, I think we have to remember that there are certain stages of life where we actually DO do those very these things for our children. When they are exploring toddlers, do we not put chemicals, breakable items, and harmful objects out of reach? Do we not child-proof cabinets, doors and other objects? Why shouldn’t we just let them figure out what not to touch or eat the hard way? In their early stages of life we put on the training wheels for our kids in order to protect them. Granted, there comes time when those training wheels come off. However, it is a slow process. You cannot one day throw a five year old into a Janitors closet and expect them to know what is and isn’t safe to touch. Schools should be a safe place for ALL children. Protecting kids with allergies at school is not going to hinder them from learning what is and isn’t safe to eat because school is not the only environment that kids are exposed to. They will have to learn in their own real lives, at family member’s houses, church get-togethers, and birthday parties, but with the help and supervision of a parent or guardian. This knowledge will eventually be ingrained in tim
July 09, 2014
time, and will be able to be applied when they are on their own. I don’t really think the whole “toss them in the pool to teach them how to swim” technique is appropriate here. There are lives involved here.

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