This month we are excited to introduce you to Andrea MacDonald, founder and facilitator of Food Allergy Support Halifax. After a few years without an allergy support group in Halifax, Andrea tells us what prompted her to start a new group in August 2016 and how she has been raising allergy awareness in her community.
Can you tell us about Food Allergy Support Halifax and how it came to be?
I used to attend another food allergy support group in Halifax when my daughter was very young, but that eventually fell by the wayside as the other children got older. My 9-year-old daughter, Rebecca, is allergic to peanuts, nuts, eggs and sesame. A few years ago, I did a bit of volunteer work with Food Allergy Canada and we agreed it would be a good idea for me to start a new group since there are always new people being diagnosed and it helps to talk to others in the same situation.
What do you consider to be the main benefits of your support group?
There’s nothing like talking to other people face to face who are dealing with the same challenges as you. Even though I host the meetings, I learn something new every time. Being part of a group makes you feel stronger and less alone. Sometimes we share our understanding of the latest food allergy research, sometimes we talk about school strategies and other times we just vent our frustrations! The reality is that people without food allergies just don’t get it sometimes, and it helps immensely to share your thoughts with those who do.
What advice would you give to someone who is newly diagnosed with a food allergy, or is having a difficult time managing?
Know that you are not alone and there are support groups across the country to help. Knowledge is power – keep up on the research but try not to get overwhelmed. Tell everyone in your circle about the allergies but expect that people won’t always understand and some will think you’re overreacting. This happens all the time, even with close family members. Never feel guilty about taking steps to protect yourself or your child, even if it makes you look like the ultimate helicopter parent. Someday they’ll have a badge for that.
Where do you meet and how can people connect with you?
We meet in the Community Room of a Sobeys grocery store in the area of Mill Cove, Bedford, NS. It’s a beautiful, pristine space with lots of seating and good availability. Best of all, it’s free!
People can also contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or head to Facebook.com/groups/FoodAllergySupportHalifax. It’s a brand-new Facebook group and I’m just starting to post content. Please stop by to check it out. I’d love to hear about your experiences in dealing with food allergies!
You are also a food allergy advocate. Tell us about some of your advocacy efforts.
In the past few years, I’ve spoken on a panel at a Food Allergy Canada community conference, given interviews on the EpiPen shortage and the importance of wearing a medical identification bracelet (e.g. MedicAlert), and written articles about living with food allergies. I’ve also written a children’s book about a girl with multiple food allergies which is not yet published. I’m a freelance writer, editor and PR consultant who used to work in journalism and in government communications. I feel very lucky to come from a media background so I can help spread awareness.
Living with food allergies can be a real challenge. Tell us about some of the biggest challenges your family had to overcome.
Living with food allergies can be tough, heartbreaking and lonely. Kids are disproportionately affected so they’re the ones who bear the brunt. Just keeping them safe can be a full-time job, never mind protecting them from the crushing disappointment that can come with being excluded. Other people seem to think our children will get used to that, but I’m not sure that’s the case. I wish they could walk in our shoes for just one day to see how food allergies impact nearly every facet of our lives. It’s tremendously hard on the psyche.
On a lighter note…I once intercepted a school bus while wearing two-inch heels to tell my daughter that yes, in fact, the granola bars at Field Day were safe to eat. People don’t realize that crazy moments like that are commonplace in the lives of families like ours. And by the way, we think it’s weird NOT to hang onto the wrapper for at least two hours after our child has eaten a new food.
Apart from that, we definitely make more dishes from scratch since our daughter’s diagnosis. We’ve become ace label readers and probably spend twice as much time in the grocery store as the average shopper, as we scrutinize every last ingredient!
What advice would you give others who are thinking of starting an allergy support group?
Don’t try to host a meeting every month! I think it’s actually more effective to spread them out. If your meetings are too frequent, it’s easy to think, “Well, I’m not sure if I can make tonight’s meeting but there’s always next month. Or the month after that.” The next thing you know, you’re showing up to an empty room.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about the support group, Food Allergy Canada, or living with food allergies?
Sometimes we’re so busy playing the role of protector, we forget how powerful we can be as lobbyists. There’s strength in numbers and by banding together, we can help effect real change. Lastly, don’t forget to check out foodallergycanada.ca to help you navigate everything from travel to school to bullying.
Thanks Andrea for sharing your story!
To connect with Food Allergy Support Halifax or one of our other support groups, visit our support group page. If there isn’t one in your community, we’ll help you get one started.