Developing a plan for living with severe allergies can be a lifelong effort.
And for children that go to summer camp every year, those plans should include management instructions while away from home, according to Lynne Rodrigues, health director of Falcon Camp in Carrollton; Lauren Schmidt, camps and school program director at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes in Shaker Heights; and Dana Severin, on-site nurse at Orange Community Education & Recreation in Orange.
All said their camp has a way of keeping track of and managing severe allergies, but all focus on clear communication and documentation.
“We require all families to fill out an emergency medical form before the start of camp, and part of that is a pretty extensive allergen list,” said Schmidt of the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes. “And then we require them to tell us if they have an EpiPen, and if they do, our staff is First Aid certified in using them. The educator carries that around with them as they go on activities. If there is an allergic reaction, we can administer.”
She added if a child has a mild allergic reaction, staff members also carry around Benadryl tablets to mitigate any condition quickly. And if there is an emergency, staff also carry around walkie-talkies to communicate with the main building.
Rodrigues said Falcon Camp’s way of handling allergies depends on the nature of a child’s condition. Some children have severe allergies to insect stings and others are allergic to food, so the nature of the allergy is going to dictate the approach. Staff members will be heavily involved with parents, especially for younger campers, to develop an approach, she said.
“Most parents who choose to send their child to camp are looking to prepare their child for life,” Rodrigues said. “Parents do need to be involved, but as you send your child off to school, hopefully by then parents have been teaching their child some basic things.”
But for Orange Community Education & Recreation, Severin said the camp experience allows the child a chance to be independent, take control of their body and be responsible for themselves. But in terms of safety, parents still are allowed to explain their child’s conditions, she added.
“As early as pre-registration, we talk about allergies to give parents a chance to share that information with us,” she said. “They create a profile for their child with their allergies, special needs and medications, to that extent. And then again when they register they can share that information. When registration closes, I go in and look at all of our participants and what they need, so we know what we have coming. I then share that with the whole department, getting everyone on the same page.”
Identifying campers with allergies early on allows the camp to adapt programming in ways that won’t cut into the fun, Severin noted.
“We do that so the child doesn’t feel limited or excluded by their allergies,” she said. “(Allergies are) just another thing, but it is something unique to them.”
Parents should also be keen to introduce self-regulation and self-awareness into a camper’s summer preparation, especially if they live with severe allergies.
“It is about knowing their bodies, and kids of all ages can understand that concept,” Severin said. “I’ve seen many times that allergies are just part of them, and it is teaching them to be inquisitive and aware of their body and safety. Camp gives them a good opportunity in a less structured environment to take ownership of their own body, allergy and to practice those skills.”
But conversations should be age-appropriate, Rodrigues said. Telling a kindergartener if they come in contact with an allergen that they could die might not be the best idea.
“They won’t know what that means,” she said. “So, you do want to explore these conversations in an age-appropriate manner, like explaining what each type of nut looks like. Any food allergy has the potential to be severe. Even if a child has never reacted strongly in the past, it doesn’t mean that next time they react that they won’t be in terrible shape.”
Discussing allergy management with a child should occur well before camp approaches, Schmidt noted.
“With anything in a child’s life that is a new situation or different, anytime you can have a conversation early normalizes it,” she said. “That way, they understand that having an allergy in a new place isn’t overwhelming, but that it is manageable. It empowers them, in a way. You want them to feel prepared and empowered, not overanxious and concerned.”