Attending summer day camp is a rite of passage for kids. But when you have a child with life-threatening food allergies, camp is more complicated than filling out forms and dropping your kid off each morning. But with planning, cooperation and communication, day camp can be a great experience for food-allergic children.
Many camps are willing to accommodate food allergies. Of course, each child’s medical condition is different, so check with your allergist first. Once you have chosen a camp, research the camp’s policies on food allergies. If there is no written policy in place, pick up the phone and talk personally with the director.
“Be proactive,” says Tom Madeyski, Executive Director/Vice President of a YMCA camp. “Don’t be shy, ask a lot of questions."
If you find that the director is willing to accommodate your child, here are some questions to ask. A peanut allergy will be used as an example in these questions, but you can easily substitute wheat, dairy, etc.
- Do campers bring a sack lunch? If so, is there a safe place for your child to eat, such as a nut-free table away, from any foods they’re allergic to?
- Is there a policy in place for other kids to wash or wipe their hands and faces after eating foods that contain peanuts?
- If meals are prepared at the camp, ask if any of the foods contain peanuts. If not, is there any possibility of cross-contact with peanuts either in the kitchen or before the food arrives? If camp meals aren’t safe for your child, can you send in ‘safe’ food?
- Will there be any craft projects using peanuts, such as bird feeders made with peanut butter? If so, can a substitution be made? Crafts using allergenic materials are often overlooked when thinking about food allergies. But even if it is not meant to be eaten, allergenic materials can get into the eyes, nose or mouth during crafting and cause an allergic reaction.
- Who handles medical care at the camp? Is there a nurse or first-aid person on-site? If so, are they trained to use an epinephrine auto-injector such as an EpiPen®? Who substitutes for the medical staff if they are away?
- Sitting down personally with the medical staff person and describing your child’s typical allergic signs and symptoms is best. If the staff has never used an epinephrine auto-injector, teach them how. You should have a clear, written allergy action plan with a picture of your child attached. “Err on the side of too much information, especially on written medical forms,” says Madeyski.
- Even if there is medical staff on-site, train the adult who will spend the day with your child how to recognize an allergic reaction as well. He or she will be the person who will need to get your child help. Ideally, every adult who will be in contact with your child should be aware of the allergy and know what to do if a reaction occurs. For day campers, it’s always a good idea to go in each morning with your child. This way, you can see if the staff has changed or a new volunteer is present, and you can make sure that they are informed of your child’s needs.“Directly interact with those who will care for your child,” says Madeyski
- Who will carry your child’s medicine? Make sure that person knows the correct temperature to store epinephrine. An EpiPen® shouldn’t be left out in the sun or in a hot car. Refer to the instructions in your own epinephrine auto-injector or talk to your pharmacist for storage requirements.
- How far away is the nearest hospital or clinic? What is the response time? Will there be field trips away from the main campsite? If so, are the driver and leader trained to handle your child’s allergy? Will they have cell phones or two-way radios to communicate should an emergency occur?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a jumping-off point to get you started. Every child is different, and food allergies vary in severity. Always discuss your child’s individual needs with their medical provider in deciding if it is safe for your child to go to camp. And once your child is cleared for camp, prepare everyone so that your child can have a happy camping experience.