By Robin Comey, Executive Director, BECC and parent of a child with life-threatening food allergies
Last year during Food Allergy Awareness Week, Aetna Insurance Company’s corporate headquarters lit their sign teal in honor of the 32 million Americans with food allergies. In Washington DC, we were fighting for policies like the FASTER (Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research) Act to both improve the safety of those in the food allergy community and expand the research necessary to find new treatment and collect data. While here in Connecticut, we successfully passed SB 706, An Act Concerning Epinephrine Auto Injectors, making epinephrine available in public venues but were falling short on passing any sort of substantive food allergy restaurant policy that would mandate enough training and education that would protect customers with life threatening food allergies. But those were different times.
This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, people impacted by food allergies are smugly smirking from behind our face masks thinking, welcome to our world. The irony of the COVID-19 public health precautions in the food allergy community is not lost on us. After all, we have been screaming about cross contamination from mountain tops for as long as we can remember. We’ve had to spend our weeknights at PTA and Board of Education meetings advocating for changes in policy and fighting for accommodations at afterschool events. I’d have to spell out to teachers that my kid wasn’t actually being rude, he just didn’t want to touch the classroom door knob. Getting our schools to understand that exposure to dangerous allergens from cross contamination could literally kill our children was a full-time job.
Now it’s a COVID-19 world and all of a sudden everyone understands. School systems are talking about handwashing like they’ve never heard of it before. Regular folks are wiping down groceries, playground equipment and removing clothes in hallways, recognizing contamination from this virus could be lurking everywhere. And it most certainly is! This is how people with food allergies live. Every. Single. Day.
The Branford Early Childhood Collaborative with a group of dedicated volunteers hold monthly support groups on the Shoreline, one for kids and another for parents/caregivers. The parent group has been running since 2009 and Food Allergy Friends, a professionally facilitated support group for kids, since 2014. Both programs are funded by a community outreach grant thanks to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) and attract families from across the state.
And like all the other activities during COVID-19, we’ve moved online. At the recent meeting, I casually asked parents if they or their kids were feeling any additional pressures since COVID-19. Not surprisingly, all I got back were a couple of shrugs. After all, we’ve been preparing for this our whole lives. And now we’re confined in the safety of our own homes. This is manageable, it’s out there, in the big world where the real danger lies.
As advocates we often joked, if only we could get people to care about the policies we were trying to move forward as much as they cared about where to buy a cereal made in a facility free of dairy, we’d actually succeed in getting people off their couches. But now we have Lixey, the glove wearing nurse, whose video has gone viral describing to the rest of the world what we have always known about cross contamination. It’s our collective eureka moment.
So this year, as we recognize Food Allergy Awareness Week, food allergy families across the state are hoping that this crisis leads to new guidelines that include safe food handling and additional protections from cross contamination. We are hopeful that when school opens back up administrators will have a better understanding of the dangers to our kids. And wouldn’t it be great if additional procedures and trainings are embraced in restaurants across the country so people are protected from not only disease, but also unwanted allergens? We think it would.
Robin Comey is a food allergy advocate, Executive Director of Branford Early Childhood Collaborative and State Representative for the 102nd District of Branford. For more information on the Food Allergy Support Groups visit www.branfordbecc.org
By Amanda Evans - Family Resource Center, Parent Educator
Hi! My name is Amanda and I would like to talk to you about the importance of you and your children staying connected to their preschool or daycare programs right now. Here is my background: I am the parent educator for the Branford Family Resource Center. I have a graduate degree in education. I have been working with kids for 25 years. I also have a five-year-old daughter and in the 15 minutes since I sat down and started to write this, she has interrupted me 7, actually now 8, times and one of us (I won’t say which one) has ended up crying. Maybe you can relate to this.
I didn’t just mention my daughter to make you nod your head in understanding. She needs attention, a lot of it, and that is the heart of the issue we as parents (or educators with our own kids) face during this epidemic. Parenting children of any age during lockdown is a challenge none of us could have predicted, and parenting preschoolers is REALLY difficult at the moment. A middle or high schooler did the majority of their schoolwork on the computer even before COVID, and a 4th grader can more or less manage online assignments and lessons on their own. They may complain, they may be bored, we may have to nag them, but elementary schoolers and up are able to at least partially understand why things have changed so much so quickly.
Preschoolers, on the other hand, aren’t built for distance learning. At all. Fives and under have limited attention spans, a wobbly concept of time, move almost constantly, are just beginning to regulate their emotions, and are designed to learn by doing and sensing in person. They thrive on real-world interactions, not Zoom meetings. Even the best preschool teachers with the most engaging online circle times are going to struggle keeping their students focused on them - and that’s with parental supervision and participation. I know each of you reading this has all the time in the world to urge your preschooler to sit still and listen during virtual morning meetings, right? No other demands on your attention, I’m sure, like working from home or other children or cleaning or laundry or cooking or…
Interestingly enough, this is where staying connected, keeping in contact, with your preschool program can actually help you. Hear me out, because I know it’s easy to feel like this is another item to add to a list that already is a mile long.
If your child’s teachers are anything like me, the teachers I work with, or my daughter’s teachers, they have been working very hard to come up with art, science, math, movement, music, literacy, and family activities for your children to do. These might all be in one place like Google classroom, Class Dojo, or a Facebook group, or maybe sent by email or text. However they are offered, we want each and every parent to know that these activities are optional, not a requirement. We want an art project or sensory experiment to add to your child’s (and your) day, break it up and give you a chance to enjoy each other if you can, not feel like doing your taxes or pulling weeds in the backyard. Treat anything your preschooler’s program offers to you as a “want-to,” not a “have-to,” and hopefully that will lift a little stress off of your shoulders.
We miss your children. We miss the routines of school. We miss the in-person connection we had with your family, but that doesn’t mean that the connection is completely broken! We have more options to stay in touch than any other generation before us and now is definitely the time to use them. I’m sure many of you are already texting and emailing your child’s teachers on a regular basis, possibly even with pictures or videos. Keep doing it, and if you’re not, start doing it - this makes our day! If the teacher is able, FaceTime visits are an incredibly effective way to keep a loving connection alive. (I can say with complete truth that I may enjoy the virtual home visits I’ve done with the families I work with even more than the three-year-olds do.) Humans are wired for connection, even through smartphones and tablets. Sometimes a few minutes laughing with a teacher they miss can turn around the entire course of a preschooler’s day - and yours as a result.
I came across a quote recently that I am going to share here because I think we all need the reminder: “Throwing around my doctorate in education for a sec: I want all you parents to know that *literally no human beings ever in history* have been asked to educate kids and do adult work simultaneously the way you are now. The scientific term for what you’re facing is ‘******* insane.’ How true is that? And with no preparation and no warning on top of it!
We know that you are doing the very best you can. We applaud you for it; if any group of people know how hard it can be to keep little kids busy and productively occupied, it’s got to be preschool teachers! We want to continue to be the resource for you we have always been in the past, just in a new, sheltering-in-place kind of way. Parenting during an epidemic is something nobody wants to do, but look at you, doing it anyway! Even on those days when you don’t believe it, your children are lucky to have you; take it from the people who are lucky to know all of you. Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep your chin up. Thanks for reading this far, and if you’d like to reach me, try email@example.com and the Branford FRC Preschool, Playgroup and Friends group on Facebook.
My brother Ed was homeless for 25 years. I had intermittent contact with him during that time, and then lost all connection with him for nine years. The last time I saw him was in February of 2006 in Boston. He was still nomadic. During the nine years without contact, I prayed for him. I often thought I was going to get a phone call and need to write his obituary.
I did get a phone call in January of 2015. Our dad was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer and was dying fast. I sent countless emails and texts and made calls in an attempt to find Ed, to put him and dad on the phone together before dad died.
Two days after dad’s funeral, on February 16th, I received a text from my step-brother:
“Ed is on the New Milford green in a brown coat.”
The next day I drove from Branford to New Milford to look for my brother. I arrived on the New Milford green and saw one person standing next to a garbage can in a brown coat. It was seven degrees out. I slowly pulled my car up and saw my brother in dirty clothes, with a big belly and beard, and weathered face. He immediately recognized me and smiled. I got out of the car, we hugged, and I wept. I told him our dad had died, and gave him a copy of the eulogy I had given. We spoke for less than 10 minutes as Ed had work to do “taking care of the trees.”
I called my step-daughter who’s a social worker in New Hampshire. She told me about NAMI and as we spoke she typed. “There’s a Family–to-Family class starting in March. Take it!” she said. I signed up, and Vicky was one of the instructors.
From that freezing February day forward, I drove to New Milford when I could – usually every other week. I brought a brown bag lunch and placed a note inside: You Are Loved. Most days I would find my brother and we would talk for a few minutes. During one of the visits, he told me he was staying in the shelter at St. John’s Episcopal Church on the New Milford green. I emailed the church, introduced myself and was connected to an entire caring, compassionate community of people who were feeding and clothing my brother. One of the people I was connected to was Peg Molina in social services. She and I met and she told me about Angel Salinas, the owner of Johana’s Restaurant. Angel had emigrated from Ecuador nine years earlier, opened his restaurant and met my brother. He fed my brother every day, for nine years.
Peg also told me of the Community Care Team she was a part of. The Community Care Team consists of a group of professionals who identify the community’s most vulnerable and create strategies to help. The team included people from social services, law enforcement, Catholic Charities homeless outreach, soup kitchen and shelter coordinators, doctors from Danbury and New Milford hospitals, and housing representatives.
Peg told me that the Community Care Team was concerned about Ed, and more so because he had an infected gash on his ankle. She said they were meeting about when the right time was, to send out a mobile intervention unit. She told me the team agreed Ed would not survive another New England winter outside.
The missing piece of the Community Care Team was family. That was my role. I brought love, compassion, history, memories and zero expectations.
Eight months after Ed and I were reconnected, the mobile intervention unit approached Ed. Ed said ‘yes’ to help, and was taken to Danbury Hospital ER to have the gash on his leg cleaned up. After physically cleaning him up, they suggested a psychiatric evaluation, and he agreed. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and prescribed Risperdal. While at Danbury Hospital, his doctors determined he could not take care of himself by himself, and a probate judge was contacted. Ed was assigned two conservators. I am Ed's older sister and co-conservator. He stayed in Danbury Hospital until a bed opened up at Connecticut Valley Hospital. For three-and-a-half months, he lived inside in Danbury Hospital. In January of 2016, he was relocated to Merritt Hall at CVH. And there I witnessed miracle after miracle.
Ed said ‘yes’ to everything: yes to yoga classes, yes to meditation, yes to swimming, yes to on-campus walks, yes to movie night, and yes to frequent day passes with me.
My brother has always loved nature and especially trees. He believes he has created all the trees, so getting him outside into nature was important. During our day passes from CVH, I would drive us to Wadsworth State Falls and we would hike into the woods. He would hug trees and take in big gulps of air. Those walks in the woods with my brother were among the most spiritual events of my life. I was witnessing his healing. And my own.
He was thriving at CVH and at one treatment plan meeting; he was told that he was ‘too healthy to stay.’ It was a good problem to have, but I was nervous about where he would live. I knew having him live with me would not be good for me, my son or Ed. Fortunately, a representative from DMHAS attended a meeting and had a housing solution. Ed’s life goals were the focal point of the meetings and he was clear about wanting to live in Danbury. When he was asked what he wanted in life, his answer was “Freedom.”
The DMHAS rep found him transitional housing in Danbury which required a photo ID. After three trips to the DMV, my brother got a photo ID and said, “I feel like a person again.”
Less than four months after being admitted to CVH, we moved Ed into his transitional home, a group home with 19 other residents and 24/7 case manager care. He acclimated to community living, cooking his own meals, and bought himself a bicycle. He has spent a lot of time with me and my son. The family connection has helped speed his recovery and healing.
This past summer, his housing was de-funded, and a new transitional home was found. We got Ed his first passport, and in September he and I drove to Montreal, to visit his nephew, my son, at McGill University.
In October, Ed sent me a text: I am thinking about going for a job, what do you think?
I replied: Go for it!!
He called me later that night to tell me he got a job dishwashing and bussing at Sesame Seed Restaurant in Danbury!!!!
My Brother Ed is a Miracle.