The NIU College of Education’s first Educator in Residence spent April 11 doing just that: educating.
Denise Bunning, who earned an M.S.Ed. in Special Education in 1989 from NIU, returned to her alma mater with a clear message for future teachers: Children will come to your classrooms with life-threatening food allergies – and you must know how to keep them safe and included.
Bunning spoke to students in LTLA 361: Literature for the Young Child and in LTRE 350: Content Area Reading classes, where she explained the basics of food allergies and allergic reactions.
Food allergies have soared by a staggering 50 percent in recent years, Bunning said. One in six food allergic children have experienced an allergic reaction at school; a quarter of those had no previous diagnosis.
In addition, food allergies don’t just present an immediate health risk to affected children; they also pack an emotional impact. Children with food allergies often feel different, isolated, alone and afraid for their safety. Some are even targets of bullying.
While speaking to students, Bunning demonstrated the “fast and first” administration of epinephrine auto-injectors – the Epi-Pen and AUVI-Q – for children experiencing anaphylaxis, and allowed students to try the procedure themselves with trainer units. She spoke of the importance of students with food allergies having Emergency Care Plans on file with their schools.
Bunning also challenged the NIU students to spend at least one day examining the ingredient list of everything they put into their mouths or applied to their skin, a challenge that would help them better understand what is a lifelong daily burden for parents and children affected by food allergies.
“Schools can make a positive difference in the lives of children with food allergies,” Bunning said. “As teachers, we all need to be thinking on our feet.”
Bunning’s journey from elementary school teacher to nationally celebrated food allergy advocate began in 1994, when her first child, Bryan, almost died from his first sip of milk-based formula. Daniel, born two-and-a-half years later, also has food allergies.
In 1997, she founded MOCHA (Mothers of Children Having Allergies) because she could not find a support system to help her deal with the day-to-day concerns confronting a parent to a food-allergic child. In 2004, she launched the nation’s first walk to boost awareness of food allergies.
Her strong advocacy in Springfield resulted in 2009’s Public Act 096-0349, which required the State Board of Education to develop and make available to each school board guidelines for the management of students with life-threatening food allergies.
As she told the audience during her afternoon keynote address, the bumpy road from 1996 to the present has been paved with “good things and bad things” – but has made her who she is.
“Life doesn’t listen to what your plans are,” Bunning said. “Life has other plans for you.”
Bunning’s day in the College of Education also included lunch with department chairs and faculty, many from the Department of Special and Early Education.
Professors discussed some of their current research projects and presented opportunities to Bunning for collaboration, while Bunning credited her master’s degree in Special Education for preparing her to advocate for her sons through their 504 plans.
Questions throughout the day from students and staff, and even from audience members at her keynote address, offered validation of the importance of her continued mission.
Some teacher-licensure students who’ve already had clinical experiences reported that they heard nothing about children with food allergies from their cooperating teachers. Others asked for lists of resources – plenty are available on the MOCHA website, Bunning told them – and agreed with her that food allergy training deserves the same mandate as CPR training or fire drills.
In the end, however, her primary message remained simple and direct: Everyone needs to know about food allergies, and everyone needs to jump to action if necessary with epinephrine.
“Don’t hesitate. You’re going to save a life by doing it,” Bunning said. “Food allergies are not just a kid thing. They’re all of us. They’re everywhere.”