When I heard that our local mall puts on holiday kids’ events throughout the year, I was excited. So was my son, Nolan.
In the spring of 2010, I packed Nolan in the car and headed to Place D’Orleans mall Easter event. It started off great – we even ran into friends, and the two boys were soon happily working away at the craft table. Then I looked up and had one of those “Where did everyone go?” moments. Parents and kids were racing off in all directions. Unbeknownst to me, the event included a store-to-store trick or treat-style Easter candy gathering.
It didn’t take long before I parted ways with our friends, as it became apparent this wasn’t going to work. Our son was too young to understand he wouldn’t be able to have any of the candy and chocolates, but he was very aware that he wasn’t getting ‘something’ to hold like everyone else. I tried to be creative; I asked one shop owner to put ticket-gun price stickers on his hand. But that wasn’t enough to quell the tears welling up in his eyes.
Sure, I could have just bought him something, but that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to be a part of the festivities. To compound the issue, now there were endless children eating very unsafe treats, who in turn were touching everyone and everything in the mall. I left the mall that day with my son in tears, causing the mommy guilt tears to flow also.
The next day, I wrote an e-mail to the mall’s management company. I thanked them for hosting wonderful children’s activities at our mall outside of Ottawa. But I also explained that, while not intentional, these events were in fact excluding children with food allergies.
A woman named Kirsty Allaire at Primaris Retail Management received the e-mail. Kirsty was empathetic, supportive and eager to know what changes could be made in order to make mall events safer and more inclusive. She promised to see she what she could do for the next big mall event: Halloween.
Halloween rolled around, and I didn’t hear from her. Turns out she purposely hadn’t told me ahead of time what accommodations she had made. She wanted to see the look on my face.
To say that I was surprised by the accommodations the mall management made is to hugely understate.
The first thing I noticed was the map of the mall they had created for the Halloween event. It was colour-coded. Clearly marked were the stores handing out food treats and – drum roll please – those handing out non-food treats. The map explained at the top that the non-food treats were safe for children with food allergies.
But Kirsty’s efforts hadn’t stopped there. She had shopped for the event herself to buy peanut- and tree nut-free treats for the entire mall, and the stores in turn bought the treats from Kristy. This meant that all treats being distributed were at least safe for kids with peanut and tree nut allergies. Kirsty had also shopped for the non-food goodies, which were all amazing.
Before we left that day, we met one more very special woman. I mistakenly had thought the map showed the Hallmark Cards store as having non-food treats, so we stopped in. Susan Van-Vianen was working at Hallmark that day and felt so badly for us that she took a teddy bear off the store’s shelf and used her own money to buy it for Nolan.
I told her not to, that it wasn’t necessary, but she absolutely insisted. Susan, it turns out, has a teenager with food allergies.
Apparently, the staff at Hallmark Canada’s head office are as sentimental as their cards. I wrote them regarding Susan’s actions. Their reply was that by the time they passed my letter around the office, all the staff were in need of tissue.
Susan is remarkable not because she bought something for our son, but because her actions were so heartfelt and touching. “Black Teddy” hasn’t left Nolan’s side for a year now, and I now look forward to a hug and chat with Susan every time I see her at the mall.
Last Halloween was an overwhelming day in a good way. I left the mall in tears – but this time they were happy, grateful tears.
In the past year, the mall has continued to make events inclusive for children with food allergies. This allergy mom did the happy dance last Christmas when I realized there were no candy canes in sight, but that Santa was handing out colouring books. The 2011 Easter event was also spectacular. There was no food. None at all!
Kirsty told me she’d tried to find a way to incorporate some peanut- and tree nut-free treats but in the end opted to plan the event with no food. Kirsty also ensured there were hand sanitizers on each of the kids’ craft tables and even had disinfectant wipes on hand.
Our son’s multiple anaphylactic allergies have changed our lives completely. But those changes have also allowed us to meet wonderful people and have blessed us with unexpected friendships. To show our appreciation, the Ottawa Anaphylaxis Support Group will be making a donation to Anaphylaxis Canada in Kirsty Allaire’s name.
When accommodations are made for kids with food allergies, they don’t just affect one child, but endless children and their families. We don’t expect every event or situation to accommodate our children, but when such efforts are made, we appreciate the inclusion more than it is possible to express.
Michelle Nel’s first children’s book is: To Be a Nut or Not!