With spring comes thoughts of summer camp for our kids. But what if they have life-threatening food allergies? Obviously, we are going to have some serious concerns that need to be addressed by the camp, but in many cases our kids can participate.
The photo I share above is of my oldest daughter as a Girl Scout, nearly five years ago. She desperately wanted to attend Girl Scout day camp, a story that I shared here in an essay that I wrote for Allergic Living magazine. (By the way, today is the last day to subscribe to receive the spring issue! I've contributed some food and product info, and there is even an interview with author John Grisham who suffers from food allergies. Subscribe by following this link.)
Like you, I had my doubts and serious concerns. My daughter was only finishing second grade, so she still needed lots of help managing her allergies. Luckily, we had a successful week but I did receive a few phone calls while camp was in session--just one was food allergy related.
Sleepaway camp is not something we've tackled yet, but my daughter would like to. I would approach any camp the same way that I did with her day camp.
First of all, I would suggest that your child not be the pioneer allergic camper unless you can really trust the camp administrators to understand food allergies. I say this because it is really much better if they already have food allergy plans in place, have served allergic campers successfully and have gone through the drills needed to execute an emergency action plan if it were needed. Of course, it's up to you, but one of the deciding factors for me and my husband when we allowed our daughter to attend GS camp was that they had separate forms and contact people for food-allergic campers and a full time EMT at the camp. Plus, the camp was not in an overly remote location--basically, it was not an hour to the nearest hospital. I know, not pleasant to think about but important to know.
Second, what is the food service situation? If day camp, can your child bring their own food and who will take care of it for them? Can you be given a menu so that you can anticipate any food allergy problems in advance? If a sleepaway camp, are the cooking staff trained in food allergy management and do they know about cross-contact issues? Do they know how to provide an allergic camper a safe meal? Try to speak to the people who do the actual cooking.
Also, does the camp serve peanut butter to campers and if so, how do they protect the allergic kids? For example, do they offer separate eating areas and is handwashing enforced before and after lunch?
Third, what do they do with the epinephrine auto-injectors? Where are they stored, can your camper carry one and who knows how to use them?
If at all possible, I highly recommend a nut-free camp for those dealing with life-threatening nut allergies. There are more of these than you think. I was a co-host at a live online chat at The Motherhood last year with Lori Sandler of the awesome Divvies (famous nut-free, egg-free, dairy-free treats) that discussed summer camp, parties and play dates. Lori invited some wonderful leaders of camp associations to attend and they had some terrific resources and advice. You can click here to see the transcript/summary of that chat.
The bottom line is that you have to do your homework before giving the OK to any camp. Check out food service, the available emergency medical care, common camp activities (for example, are they big on art projects involving food?) and investigate the training given to the camp staff. Discuss these things in person if possible, but don't rely on e-mail alone. An initial phone call is helpful, too. I've found that it's important to have an actual conversation with the staff because you get a better opportunity to determine their comfort level with your questions and concerns.
Your child's age and responsibility level is also a key factor. For me, sleepaway camp is better for the older kids, since we can usually count on them to be more self-sufficient at managing their allergies.
You're the best judge to decide if your food-allergic child is ready for camp, but for those of you who have taken the plunge, how did it go for you? Any advice for newbie campers out there?