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Support Group Profile: New group looking to do big things in Alberta

We recently spoke with Karen Bracegirdle and Catherine McBean, from the support group Children with Food Allergies Alberta, which was founded in October 2017. We spoke to Karen and Catherine about what it’s like to start a group from scratch, what convinced them to get involved, and which communities are being served.

How did you come together to form Children with Food Allergies Alberta – Education and Support Group?

Karen Bracegirdle with her son Easton

Karen: After finding out at 3 months old that my son had several allergies, I tried to reach out and find other families/parents who had similar experiences. Being a new mom, I found it very scary and difficult to know what to do and how to do it. I created our Facebook Group solely to try to bring together families that had children with food allergies, so they could have some support and gain information from one another. Since that day, it’s only grown and we’ve all learned so much from each other.

Catherine: I felt that our community needed a place where parents of children with food allergies could come together to feel supported and educated. I was interested in some informal sessions dealing with daily living with food allergies as well as special presentations a few times a year. After reaching out to Food Allergy Canada, I was so excited at the prospect of being a volunteer through them. As I was trying to gauge interest on a community page, Karen reached out and told me about her Facebook Group which already had around 45 members. We spoke on the phone and decided to team up and expand on what she’d already created. We’re now at 100 members in our Facebook Group.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Do you have food allergies yourself, or do your children?

Karen: We found out that our son was allergic to dairy at 3 months old, he was extremely colicky and had eczema all over his body. After seeing an allergist very early on, we determined he was also allergic to eggs, almonds, and peanuts. Being new parents to a child with multiple food allergies was overwhelming. Thankfully, I worked in the Department of Pediatrics at the Stollery Children’s Hospital and had great support from the allergist and pediatricians with whom I’d worked.

Catherine McBean with her daughter Briar

Catherine: We found out that our daughter was severely allergic to dairy at 6 months old. We later learned she was also allergic to eggs and most tree nuts. Navigating through daily life with food allergies was new for our family and it was very overwhelming in the beginning. I was able to speak to a friend of a friend who was dealing with the same allergies as us, and she was able to help me with food ideas and where to find accurate information.

How has your support group helped families in the Sherwood Park, Alberta area in dealing with allergies?

Both: There have been some great conversations on our Facebook Group page about struggles during holidays, anxiety over food and snacks at school, food challenges, and even changing Alberta policies to keep our children safe at school. We have members from across Alberta, some in other provinces, and even a few international members who were looking for a group to share stories and support. For those who live in Edmonton or Sherwood Park, we can get together to develop more personal relationships.

What advice would you give others who are thinking of starting an allergy support group?

Both: Although our Children with Food Allergies Alberta Facebook Group gains members quite steadily, our in-person sessions don’t get as many participants. My advice would be to give it time and let your group slowly grow. Also, being affiliated with Food Allergy Canada has helped quite a few people find our Facebook Group and email address.

Your first meeting featured registered psychologist Brandi Gruninger, who spoke about allergy-related stress and anxiety in children. Why did you choose that topic?

Both: Anxiety is a challenge that many people face. Adding in life-threatening food allergies can increase anxiety, in both children with food allergies and their parents. Brandi helped us to realize what’s considered anxiety in adults and children, some tips on how to reduce anxiety, and when to seek extra support.

Where do you meet?

Both: For our smaller gatherings we meet at the BriarPatch Family Life Education Centre [in Sherwood Park]. We are working in partnership with this organization and they’ve helped our group by donating space, creating awareness, and helping with costs associated with room rentals for larger gatherings.

What advice would you give to someone newly diagnosed with a food allergy, or who is having a difficult time managing food allergies?

Catherine: Find someone who is also dealing with food allergies. I personally have gone through some trying times when I’ve felt very overwhelmed and anxious. Although I reached out to my best friends, they couldn’t truly understand. It was in speaking with a friend from another province (who also happens to run a support group through Food Allergy Canada) where I realized I needed to find more people who shared my fears, anxiety, and daily experiences.

Karen: I completely agree with Catherine. Definitely find someone who’s dealing with food allergies who you can speak with. It’s difficult for people who don’t have children with food allergies to understand how hard and anxiousit can be. There’s lots of support on social media, and many different moms groups.

Where can people find out more information?

For more information, please email us at childrenwithfoodallergiesab@gmail.com.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the support group, Food Allergy Canada, or living with food allergies?

Our group is relatively new, especially in terms of getting together in person. We’re excited to try new information sessions/workshops and really work as a group to create awareness about allergies in the community.

Thank you Catherine and Karen! Keep up the great work!

We are proud to have support group leaders across Canada to serve as local resources for individuals and families living with food allergies! Visit our support group page to learn more about support groups, how to find one, or we’ll help you set one up.