Yes, I Did It! Young People Who Won’t Let Food Allergies Stop Them

in Managing Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: March 15, 2019

Young people prove the point: you really can be empowered, despite severe food allergies.

WITH the daily vigilance required to manage life-threatening food allergies, stepping up to take on new challenges can seem daunting. But before you pass up any opportunities, meet some amazing young people who are finding the courage to live their dreams. And they all have multiple allergies.

Their impressive “I Did It” experiences are proof that food allergies don’t need to stifle anyone’s ability to compete in sports, work with food, take on travel, attend summer camp or aspire to a music career.

It does require educating, planning and feeling ready in order to crush such life-changing moments. But crush them, they do.

Karate proved a great outlet for Cara Kelly. Photo: Keith Barraclough
Cara Kelly, 12

Lives in: Long Island, New York
Allergies: peanuts, tree nuts

Defining experience: Karate is changing young Cara Kelly’s life – teaching her athleticism, resilience, the ability to kick out frustrations, and that she can travel in spite of her food restrictions.

In 2017, during her second year of karate, Cara traveled to Greenville, South Carolina to take part in the USA National Karate Championships & Team Trials. During the four-day competition, Cara won two gold medals, which are now proudly displayed at her dojo on Long Island.

Food was a big consideration for the meet. Cara helped her mom Susan Kelly to prepare all of the food to take with them on the trip, including the 13-hour drive.

“I was probably more nervous about what I was going to eat, so I felt better because I was bringing my own food. I could relax after that,” says the seventh grade student. With that stress gone, Cara could concentrate on competing with her teammates.

Through karate, she has learned techniques to keep relaxed and focused. “Before and after every class we meditate, and just clear our minds,” Cara says.

The martial art is also a great outlet. When she has felt frustrated about her food allergies, “I would kind of take my anger out when I was fighting. That’s why no one would want to fight me sometimes,” Cara says with pride. “Karate has helped me with my confidence level by a long shot. I’m more positive now.”

Cara has now achieved a brown belt and competed in summer 2018 at the Karate Nationals in Reno, Nevada, where she received three gold medals and one bronze.

Words to live by: “I’ve accomplished something big and it made me know that I am stronger than I think I am.” Also, “I used to not want to speak about my allergies at restaurants, but now I do. I speak up about everything now, not just my food allergies,” Cara says. “You have to be confident and self-talk. I just say, ‘I got this, I can do this.”

Luke Melendez (left), with his dad Raul, mom Sarah and brother Conner.
Luke Melendez, 11

Lives in: Toronto, Canada
Allergies: dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts

Defining experience: Traveling to Costa Rica, which included zip-lining above the rainforest, was a life-altering experience for Luke Melendez and his family.

With many successful road trips in their minivan behind them, “we felt like we could handle a vacation where we went on a plane,” says Luke’s mom, Sarah Nicholl. Since her husband has a brother in Costa Rica, this first out-of-country trip was also a chance to visit family.

“Doing road trips gave us a lot of confidence to do this,” she says. For car vacations, they took all their own food, “and you can stop wherever you need to, which really helped us feel comfortable,” Sarah explains. For Costa Rica, they still packed along some allergy-friendly, storable foods.

Luke says the only downside was the length of time in the supermarket “because the ingredients were in Spanish.” He excitedly recalls eye-opening travel experiences: “We went zip-lining which was awesome; I went upside down on some of the zip-lines. We also went waterfall rappelling, and we got to feed pineapple to iguanas. We had lots of fun.”

Since the big Costa Rica trip, the family has vacationed in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. They biked on trails, went deep sea fishing and even discovered new safe foods along the way.

Words to live by: Where is the family thinking about going next? “I would really like to go to England,” Luke says. His mom adds: “Now we feel like we could go anywhere.”

Kylie Kozar: impressed restaurant manager.
Kylie Kozar, 18

Lives in: Los Angeles, California
Allergies: peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish

Defining experience: Kylie Kozar grew up anxiously awaiting the day she could finally apply for a part-time job – and then she landed her first job in 2018 – in a restaurant of all places.

She began her quest by filling out applications at stores, expecting that retail sales would be the more realistic option given her severe allergies. But Kylie’s real desire was to work at a restaurant.

She applied online to one she knew and, employing a “can-do” attitude, decided to follow up in person. Kylie was able to gain an on-the-spot interview with the managers. “I went through how I’ve loved this restaurant ever since I was small and how important it was for me to get this experience,” says Kylie.

She also spoke frankly of how “I’d had to grow up faster and really come out of my shell because of my allergies.” Kylie divulged the challenge of finding a restaurant with sufficient precautions, and how much this job meant to her.

“The manager saw that I was making the best out of my situation, and trying to progress and grow, so they hired me on the spot. It was really great.”

Words to live by: “In general, the job has made me more comfortable with my allergies because I know that it is all in my hands. If I need to leave a situation because of my allergies, then I have that control.”

Making friends at work, and educating them about her allergies, has brought Kylie even more reassurance. She thinks that what was most important was “finding a place that you feel safe in.”

The Word teens in shirts from a church event aimed at thinking about others.
Kennedy Word, 15, and Shane Word, 17

Live in: Atlanta, Georgia
Allergies: Kennedy: Top 8, except soy, shellfish, and almond; EoE, asthma.
Shane: blueberries, idiopathic food allergy, asthma

Defining experience: Kennedy Word learned to put her own food allergy knowledge to work to help her big brother. Once she overcame the initial shock of watching Shane have his first anaphylactic reaction in 2017, she set about educating her older sibling.

Since both Word kids grew up with asthma, their mom says Kennedy was used to “playing mother hen,” and reminding Shane to use his inhaler.

Now Kennedy, who grew up with severe food allergies to seven top allergens, turned to teaching her brother the allergy basics, including how to read labels carefully and not miss any precautionary warnings.

In one case, she had to get persuasive to save the day. “There was one time when Shane was going to eat something and I said, ‘No, you can’t eat that.’ I didn’t want anything to happen to him,” Kennedy says.

Shane has had some difficulty adjusting. With an idiopathic allergy diagnosis, it has taken time to figure out which foods are safe for him. “I was really upset during this span of months when I didn’t know what I could and could not have. My sister was calm. I just realized: she’s been dealing with this her entire life. It was definitely a role reversal.”

Before long, Shane came to understand that if Kennedy could go out to restaurants and stick only to safe menu items, he could, too. The siblings also share an athletic bond. Kennedy is a cheerleader at Shane’s football games; there to cheer him on, both on and off the field.

They’ve also both taken on leadership roles at school and volunteer together for the high school B.E.S.T. Club, where they assist teachers with special needs students.

Words to live by: With a few teasing moments of sibling rivalry aside, these siblings look out for each other.

“At the end of the day, I always know that my sister will be here for me, and she knows I will always be here for her,” says Shane. Kennedy also stresses the importance of having friends know about your food allergies. “Definitely tell people close to you. If they are good friends, they’re going to take precautions.”

Ally Kustera on "Chopped Junior." Show was "extremely caring."
Ally Kustera, 15

Lives in: Huntington, New York
: peanuts and tree nuts

Defining experience: Ally Kustera enjoyed a star turn on television in 2016, after landing a coveted spot as a contestant on the Food Network’s “Chopped Junior” series.

“Once I got cast, I was completely overjoyed!” she recalls. “I felt very special and lucky because I have food allergies, and I didn’t let that stop me, and there were 5,000 submissions and only 50 kids were chosen.”

Since the contestants use mystery ingredients to create dishes, a lot of people with food allergies would presume such a show was off-limits to even consider. However, Ally and her family discovered that “the show’s culinary team was extremely caring and cautious. They were very aware about my allergies and accommodated amazingly.”

While Ally, who aspires to be a movie director, did eventually get “chopped,’ she found she gained confidence from both auditioning and competing.

Another big plus was getting to raise awareness about food allergies on national television. This led to newspaper interviews, speaking at a FARE Teen Summit and a workshop at a kids’ fair. “I got many gracious emails and thoughtful texts. I was so humbled,” she said.

Words to live by: “One big thing I took away from this experience was to be thankful for every opportunity,” says Ally. What does she suggest to allergic kids with big dreams? “Wait. With time and patience, you will achieve anything, and never give up! Always follow your heart.”

Matthew Pinchbeck felt "empowered" by field trip.
Matthew Pinchbeck, 10

Lives in: North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Allergies: peanuts and sesame

Defining experience: Back when he was 6, Matthew had an experience that gave him the courage to trust himself, despite having some allergy-related fears.

His first grade class was set to go on a field trip in another state, and it was the first such trip his mom couldn’t attend. His mom encouraged him to not be scared.

“I didn’t want my food allergies to stop me,” Matthew says. “I was thinking about my mom’s words and that I had control of what I put in my mouth.”

He still had some concerns about other kids not following rules and eating on the bus. But Matthew bravely went on the trip, which turned out great.

“Afterwards was the best because I was totally proud of myself for doing it,” he says. “I felt empowered because, until that moment, I didn’t feel safe unless my mom was with me.”

Matthew educates his friends about food allergies and will attend his first trip away from home this summer, where he will manage his food allergies without his mom’s direct supervision.

Words to live by: Matthew feels confident that he can go on trips with his school or places with his friends. “It’s a great feeling not being so scared. I need to always be cautious, and make sure I always carry my epinephrine. But I know I can do it now.”

Jenn, Liam, Todd and Sofia DiMercurio visit Houston's NRG stadium on their trip.
Liam DiMercurio, 10

Lives in: York, Pennsylvania
Allergies: dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, soy, wheat, sesame, horse, asthma

Defining experience: A road trip across America was a transformative experience, and serves as an inspiration to other food allergy families.

The DiMercurios took their three-week trip in 2015 from Pennsylvania to California and back in a camper van, ultimately visiting family in San Diego. Being football fans, they held allergy-friendly tailgates while checking out numerous NFL stadiums. That was a trip highlight for Liam.

Jenn DiMercurio, Liam’s mom, says, “part of camping was to empower ourselves, because we could stop to get food and make what we needed.”

When they arrived in San Diego, Liam’s grandparents “went out of their way to make safe meals that Liam could eat. We’ve never really had that before, where somebody has cooked anything for us that we’ve felt good about,” says Jenn. “It was one of the best times we’ve ever had.”

After the trip Liam says, “I felt really confident; like I could do a lot.” He has attended an allergy-friendly camp and his family is part of a weekly bowling league.

Further building his confidence, Liam then joined sports teams. “I really like flag football now” he says, finishing his second season this past fall. Driving cross-country “was life-changing for all of us in so many ways,” notes Jenn.

Words to live by: The DiMercurios learned the importance of supporting each other. “We do a lot of things as a team,” says Jenn. “It has taught us patience and helped us to be closer. It’s not easy, but we know we are all in it together.”

Allergies inspired Kendall Renee's song on the radio.
Kendall Renee, 22

Lives in: Long Beach, California
: Numerous foods, including peanuts, tree nuts, soy, pork, wheat, fish, shellfish, eggs, most fruits and vegetables, latex

Defining experience: Life and career milestones collided in one exceptionally emotional moment when singer-songwriter Kendall Renee heard herself singing on the radio. “I sat in the car listening in tears as my head filled with so many memories of what it took to get to that very moment.”

The young Californian (see her website here) has had to face up to many obstacles. “I grew up always feeling different because of my food allergies. Fast forward many years, and the song I wrote about being awkward and day-dreaming about fitting in ends up the one that’s being played on the radio,” says Kendall. “Everything comes full circle in this crazy life, if you hang in there.”

Words to live by: “I wrote a song called “Original” that is my message to anyone in the thick of it, especially those with food allergies. I ended up naming my album “Original,” because that’s the message l am trying to send – that it’s OK to be different.”

The songwriter adds: “Don’t give up and don’t ever let medical trials or food allergies define you. You can truly do anything, if you believe.”

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