Food allergy advocate Denise Bunning named COE’s first Educator in Residence

Denise Bunning
Denise Bunning

Denise Bunning remembers well the moment she decided to become a teacher when she grew up. She was 8 and in the third-grade when her East Coast family settled in Glenview, Ill.

“I always loved school,” says Bunning, who eventually earned her M.S.Ed. in Special Education from NIU in 1989 and went on to teach second- and third-graders in Skokie. “I’m one of those Type A people who numbers and color-codes everything in the correct ROYGBIV order.”

Lesson plans for her classroom were always “crazy and fun,” she says. “I had a blast every day.”

Children crawled under desks to pretend they were painters. They learned to count to 10 in the 10 different languages represented by their classmates, memorized the names of all of the U.S. presidents and mastered the ability to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in sign language.

But Bunning also remembers well – and in vivid detail – the moment that her carefully mapped-out life changed forever.

The new and young mother was feeding her 6-month-old son his first bottle of milk-based formula in their Chicago high-rise apartment. Wearing her pajamas, and happily chatting with her own mother on the phone, she had no inkling of what was coming for little Bryan.

“One sip, and he literally turned beet-red. His lips swelled. His eyes rolled in the back of his head. It was that scary,” Bunning says. “Neither my husband, Dave, nor I have any food allergies, and I didn’t know you could be allergic to something like milk until my son almost died in my arms. It was a complete shock, and one of those situations where you just do what you have to do. It’s the life of your child.”

Quick thinking and fast feet helped Bunning save her first-born that day in 1994, and in the days, weeks, months and years that followed, she became a relentless and nationally acclaimed advocate for raising awareness of food allergies.

Next month, she also will become the NIU College of Education’s first Educator in Residence.

“We have launched the Educator in Residence program for two main purposes – to honor and celebrate our amazing alumni who are doing remarkable and exciting things in their careers, and to allow our students to interact with these alumni,” Dean Laurie Elish-Piper says.

“Denise Bunning is the perfect first Educator in Residence because she has taken her master’s degree in Special Education to places we never could have imagined,” adds Elish-Piper, who calls Bunning “a mover, a shaker and a doer. She is an advocate, an educator, a supporter of research. She has mobilized advocacy in the area of food allergy awareness and taken it to a whole new level.”

As part of Bunning’s return to DeKalb, she will deliver a keynote address on “Food Allergies for Huskies” from 3 to 4 p.m. Thursday, April 11, in the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, 231 N. Annie Glidden Road. The NIU Alumni Association then will honor her Friday, April 12, as the recipient of its 2019 Alumni Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Service.

Humbled and thrilled by the college’s Educator in Residence recognition – “When the dean reached out and said, ‘We’re contemplating this program, and we’d like to offer this honor to you as our first Educator in Residence,’ truthfully, my eyes welled up,” Bunning says – Bunning is nonetheless grounded and serious about the opportunity to speak and share her message.

“Future educators will be tasked with not only educating, but they must also have the ability to inspire and include students with various types of learning abilities, social and emotional abilities as well as health-related issues,” she says. “Being inclusive with all types of children is certainly best practice in today’s world.”

The Bunnings: Dave and Denise (back), Bryan and Daniel (front)
The Bunnings: Dave and Denise (back), Bryan and Daniel (front)

That means teachers must “think outside of the box,” one of the pieces of wisdom she hopes to instill in current College of Education majors.

“As educators, or in any career, really, these students will face dynamic challenges that require creative problem solving,” Bunning says. “The more creative perspectives we can bring to bear on these problems, the more likely we are to solve them.”

Bunning certainly knows about building communities and searching for solutions.

Moments after she (and her taxi driver!) arrived at the ER with Bryan strapped into his infant car seat, she heard the dreaded words “Code Blue.” Later, after Bryan was finally out of danger, a nurse underlined exactly how dire things had been.

“She said, ‘Oh my goodness, you almost lost him. We’ve never seen such a severe reaction,’ ” Bunning says. “That was my introduction.”

Living in the pre-Google and Facebook era, and in search of answers as well as connections to other parents in the same situation, Bunning started working the phones, calling allergists, pediatricians, hospitals and anyone else she could think of who might provide more information about food allergies.

The Bunnings were getting specific details on Bryan’s food allergies – between he and his brother, Daniel, born two-and-a-half years later, they were allergic to milk, egg, treenuts, shellfish, fish, beef and more – while pressing doctors for explanations about the children with allergies born to parents without.

Just accepting that it was food allergies that had caused her frantic cab ride, and her referral to what is now Lurie Children’s Hospital, was hard to understand. “I couldn’t comprehend that food could kill,” she says. “You’re like, ‘What? Are you sure? This isn’t something you’re making up?’ Instead, it’s, ‘No, this isn’t the sniffles. This is a life-and-death scenario.’ ”

Out of obvious necessity, she and Dave immediately began regarding milk as “cyanide — it’s like you have a bomb in your refrigerator or pantry.”

Meanwhile, she started MOCHA (Mothers of Children Having Allergies) in 1997. The organization has grown from its local Chicago origins to provide support to parents across the United States.

“I wanted to talk to other families. There’s nothing like talking to someone who really gets it,” Bunning says. “You don’t ever get a break. Food is everywhere, 24/7. You have to read every ingredient on every label, every time, on everything that goes into your mouth and on your skin.”

The Bunnings also realized that few people at that time understood the severity of the food allergy health epidemic. While recent years have seen “a tremendous increase – thank you, Internet,” Bunning’s work a quarter-century ago to raise awareness took place in the old fashioned way.

Feeling “completely appalled by the fact that one of the first states to have food allergy guidelines was Massachusetts” – the Bunnings both earned their undergraduate degrees there, she at Boston College and he at Harvard, and met on a flight home to Illinois for Christmas break – she began to lobby then-Illinois State Sen. Susan Garrett for similar legislation in the Land of Lincoln.

Garrett agreed, but on one condition.

“She said, ‘if you promise that you are the one who comes down to Springfield to go with me to meet with the other representatives and senators to educate them.’ Sure enough, that’s what we did, and that’s how Illinois got its guidelines.”

Lawmakers began to call her the “Pencil Lady” for her practice of handing out color-coded pencils during every visit to the Capitol. White represented milk allergies, for example, while yellow designated egg allergies.

Susan Garrett
Susan Garrett

When some legislators seemed tired of adding another pencil to their collections, Bunning politely reminded them how to make her go away: Pass the bills. Just pass the bills.

Public Act 096-0349, which required the State Board of Education, in conjunction with the Department of Public Health, to develop and make available to each school board guidelines for the management of students with life-threatening food allergies, took effect in August 2009.

A decade later, the Bunnings remain heavily involved in the FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) organization, which works on behalf of the 32 million Americans with food allergies, including those at risk for anaphylaxis. Dave is chair of the Board of Directors while Denise is a member of the Board of Governors.

“I very much enjoy helping the national organization, FARE, with anything involving research, awareness and especially education. Seeing my sons now as healthy, thriving adults shows me the impact that active advocacy can have on a life,” Bunning says.

“It has only strengthened my resolve to stay engaged and work to make that type of outcome the reality for all children suffering from food allergies. Anything I can do to make a food allergic child’s life better is in the ‘W’ column for me,” she adds. “I am so proud of both of my sons for their hard work, integrity and especially being kind and thoughtful to all individuals.”

Through their family foundation, the Sunshine Charitable Foundation, they also are generous supporters of research into food allergies and eosinophilic esophagitis along with communities, education, health and veterans’ affairs.

“My husband and I feel extremely indebted to the people, schools and organizations that have helped us become who we are today. We wanted to ‘give back’ to those institutions, and ‘give forward’ to the organizations whose goals aligned with our mission of improving health, education and the environment,” Bunning says. “I believe our communities and our country are better when we unite and give back to those in need, regardless of your individual beliefs.”

Behind the advocacy and philanthropy, however, she remains a teacher at heart – a teacher with a unique perspective on what all classroom teachers need to know about the children in their care to keep them safe.

And she’s grateful for the preparation that has made her mission a successful one.

“I was a teacher before becoming a mom of two highly allergic boys. My Special Education teaching skills were a blessing as I navigated through understanding how the boys’ food allergies would not only affect their day-to-day life, but also how it affected them in schools, both academically and emotionally,” Bunning says.

NIU, meanwhile, “gave me another fantastic and very different experience than I had during my undergraduate years at Boston College. Each experience helps shape us to become who we are,” she adds. “At NIU, I learned how to communicate with, and teach, students from all walks of life, a skillset I put to use every day as an advocate for food allergy awareness. I’m very thankful.”

The Bunnings: Denise, Bryan, Daniel and Dave
The Bunnings: Denise, Bryan, Daniel and Dave
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