The Sabrina Shannon Memorial Award is sponsored by Food Allergy Canada. The Award, made possible through an educational grant from TD Securities, provides two awards of $1,000 to students entering their first year or continuing their studies at a post-secondary institution and is presented annually to teens and young adults who have greatly contributed to the Canadian food allergy community. It’s dedicated to Sabrina Shannon, an inspiring teenager who suffered a fatal anaphylactic reaction in 2003. During her lifetime, Sabrina helped to raise awareness about food allergy by creating a first-person radio documentary, “A Nutty Tale,” which aired on CBC radio in 2001.
It goes without saying that anyone chosen to receive the award would be exceptional, but Alyssa Burrows and Hannah Lank take the word “accomplished” to whole new levels. The 2017 co-recipients of the award have many accomplishments under their belts all before turning 20. Alyssa and Hannah were selected from a large number of applicants for their strong commitment and creative approach to raising awareness and educating others about life-threatening allergies.
Alyssa, who calls Kingston, Ontario home, is now a 20-year-old life sciences undergraduate at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON. When — at the age of 13 — she discovered that she had a peanut allergy, she immediately stepped up and became engaged in volunteer allergy activism and education.
“At the time, it was easier to think of the negatives rather than the positives of having a food allergy,” Alyssa reminisces. “I would soon come to realize, that my food allergy would become a cornerstone for self-advocacy and involvement within the food allergy community.”
During a co-operative education placement at Kingston Allergy and Asthma in 2015, Alyssa’s idea to teach children about food allergies was born after a patient mentioned that it would be great to have a young person speak to other young people about food allergies. As documented in a 2016 article in The Kingston Whig-Standard, when she was still in high school, Alyssa developed a presentation on food allergy intended for elementary school students. Her interactive presentation included games, went over basic rules such as hand washing and avoiding food sharing, the signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, and how to use an epinephrine auto-injector. She contacted elementary schools all over Kingston and presented to approximately two hundred students and their teachers about how to be a good friend to someone with allergies.
“Allergy Pals involves mentoring children between the ages of 7 and 11,” says Alyssa. “We go through the programming and talk about their different experiences of living with allergies. A lot of the kids don’t know anyone with allergies when they enter the program, but when they leave the program they know at least ten others.”
More recently, Alyssa spent the summer working under Dr. Anne Ellis at Kingston General Hospital on a study on biphasic anaphylaxis. She has also taken on ambitious research projects for Food Allergy Canada, including a study of allergy policies in Canadian universities, colleges and other post-secondary schools.
“I was looking at which post-secondary schools have allergy policies, which don’t, what information they have available to the public or students looking into going to that school,” she explains. “From my knowledge, most don’t have a formal allergy policy. Food Allergy Canada is about to adopt a set of guidelines that can help them make their own policy and adopt it so they can feel more comfortable.”
Now studying life sciences at McMaster University, Alyssa hopes to continue the momentum of her elementary school initiative at Hamilton Elementary schools.
Winnipeg-born Hannah Lank has a connection to Sabrina Shannon that goes much deeper than sharing the 2017 award with Alyssa. Her parents, renowned cinematographers Barry and Luanne Lank, produced the documentary Sabrina’s Law for the National Film Board in 2007.
“It was about her parents’ drive to get legislation out of the tragedy,” Hannah says. “Ever since then, I’ve known what Food Allergy Canada is all about, I thought it was so important that there is an organization that advocates for people like me, who have life-threatening allergies.”
Now doing a major in English and a double minor in Classics and Physiology at the University of Toronto, Hannah became deeply involved in Food Allergy Canada’s educational and advocacy programs from a very young age.
“I joined the Youth Advisory Panel [YAP], when I was 12 or 13 years old,” she explains. “So I got to meet people my age from all across the country who also had food allergies and were interested in raising awareness and advocating about greater safety measures.”
During her years as a member of YAP, Hannah was involved in many initiatives. She led weekly sessions as a mentor in the Allergy Allies program, wrote blog articles, aided with social media awareness campaigns and was involved with helping to organize the teen session of Food Allergy Canada’s Winnipeg conference in 2014.
Hannah did not stop there. In Grade 11, she took her activities to the next level and started a food allergy club at her Winnipeg high school. Her club organized presentations to Grade 9 students and hosted monthly nut-free bake sales. By the time she graduated, Hannah had educated nearly 1,000 students about the seriousness of food allergies and raised over $500 in support of Food Allergy Canada.
“I explained what food allergies were all about. I showed them how to use [epinephrine] auto-injectors, and I showed some of the (public service) commercials that Food Allergy Canada had made. I was really surprised at the positive results I got from students when I did these presentations. They were so keen to learn about food allergies, and so shocked at how serious they were.”
During that period, Hannah also found time to work as a research volunteer with the education team of Dr. Allan Becker at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg where she developed online resources for youth with food allergies, reviewed the available online and social media resources, and conducted interviews with teens in clinic to help develop resources for youth with food allergies.
Hannah’s accomplishments in the food allergy community are impressive. She continues to raise awareness as a quarterly freelance columnist with Allergic Living magazine and does not foresee her involvement with the food allergy community ever wavering.
Our congratulations to these two remarkable and accomplished young people!
To learn more about the Sabrina Shannon Memorial Award, visit our community awards page, or click here.