I had to figure out what was the mission of the non-profit and what was my personal mission.You are now a consultant – when did you realize you could have a business doing what you were doing as a non-profit?
For me, it was less about making it a business and more about having the freedom to speak on my own and not as the president of the Food Allergy Education Network. I didn’t want to feel restricted, to wonder: “Did this go through a medical advisory board?”
What types of things do you do as a consultant?
I use my experience as a teacher as well as my expertise in educating about food allergies and having a child with food allergies to help others.
I do phone consultations, in-person consultations and I go to meetings with parents. I write expert reports that are given to schools. I was an expert witness in a daycare allergy rights case. And I help schools develop policy.
When you counsel parents regarding kids in the school system, what is your approach?
We really need to work collaboratively with the school. It can be frustrating, but you need to keep working on educating them, getting them resources, building that relationship so they see you as a credible source of information and somebody they can turn to for help if they need help.
In the universe of what school officials are dealing with, food allergies are just one speck of it. As a parent you need to be constantly keeping that in your mind.
What is a common mistake parents make?
It’s important to make it a priority to build a positive relationship with your child’s school if at all possible. Know your child’s rights and be educated, but then use that knowledge to help build credibility with the school.
Remain factual rather than emotional if you can. I know it’s not always easy when the stakes are so high, but if the school views you as a source of information, it not only helps you to advocate for your child, but it can have greater implications. They may bring you into the discussion when they develop policy or are looking for resources to educate staff or students.
If you feel things aren’t going well, bring in help earlier in the process. A good advocate can help you to get what your child needs while still preserving a working relationship with the school.
What do you feel are the biggest school challenges right now with regard to food allergies?
It’s taking schools longer to develop food allergy management policies than I would like. The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines are great and they give schools direction on everything from creating individual plans for students to school-wide education and staff training. But it takes time for guidelines like these to be implemented on a local level.
I’m seeing good policy in place nationally and statewide, but it’s not necessarily trickling down to the local level. So you’re seeing parents having to take that on and help to advocate to get that in place.
How is the way food allergies approached in preschools different from public schools?
It really varies. It depends on how much experience that preschool provider has with food allergies and what kind of training they have in place. Some preschools are in homes, some are done in church buildings. There needs to be a little bit of thought as far as how to best manage food allergies depending on the physical location of the preschool.
Along with a colleague, I am currently putting the finishing touches on The Preschool Food Allergy Handbook – which looks at how to handle food allergies in the preschool setting, based on the CDC guidelines. (Details on how to get this new handbook will be available soon at FoodAllergyConsulting.com.)
I think most school officials are in this career because they care about kids and they want to do what’s right, but sometimes they don’t know what to do or how to do it. So I’m just trying to help them get the resources they need to implement things that are effective.
Your daughter has just begun Grade 4 – what are the big issues for her this year at school?
I’m trying to let go a bit and help her take on some more responsibility and advocate more for herself, in a place where safety nets are already in place. It’s also a challenge to balance her safety needs with her emotional needs of wanting to belong and be part of the group.
See Gina Mennett Lee’s website here.
More honorees in The Allergy Advocates Series:
Lisa Rutter: A Force of Good for Food Allergy
Karen Harris: Food Allergy’s Educating Dynamo
Cathy Owens: The Nurse Who’s the Allergic Student’s Protector
Jenny Sprague: Courageous Woman who Unites Allergy Bloggers