March 25, 2013

A Successful Marin Overnight

When Tristan left in the morning with his big duffle filled with sleeping bag, toiletries, and layering pieces--for which I had specific instructions lest he go out everyday in a t-shirt--I was in pieces.  There was never a doubt in my mind that we would make it happen, and figure out a way for him to be included in his class' first overnight stay.  I just hadn't anticipated how nerve-wracking it would be.  And little did I know how much of a learning and growing experience it would be, for the both of us.

Eighty third graders stayed two nights at the Point Bonita YMCA.  It is a clean facility, with separate boys' and girls' dorms.  Bunks are divided into several smaller rooms and one meeting room, and large bathrooms.  Their spacious dining hall includes a buffet and plenty of long cafeteria-style tables.  All the children were given an orientation about how the dining hall works, with an emphasis on composting and taking only what you can eat.  The food is mostly organically grown and healthful, with basic ingredients, which simplified things for us.  On top of it all, the meals were delicious.

So how does a multiple and severely allergic child eat in a dining hall in a camp-style setting?  With a lot of planning, foresight, and a bunch of faith thrown in for good measure.  Richard Holden at Point Bonita YMCA was a pleasure to work with.  We communicated via email, with a follow-up discussion with his chef when we got there.  Here are a few things that worked for us:

1.  I emailed Food Service Director Rich Holden well in advance of the trip.  We emailed back and forth until I came up with a modified menu for Tristan.  It would have been nice for these menus to have been posted in the kitchen upon our arrival, but Tristan brought two copies of the menu with him, both of which he ended up giving to the chefs for reference.  I made sure to introduce Tristan to the chef before the first meal.

Here is the dinner menu for day 1.  Rich was willing to do a modified menu, or a combination of a modified menu and supplements, depending on the food allergies. We needed to do minimal supplementation (just soy milk boxes and Oreos), as there was lots of variety.

Point Bonita Sample Dinner Menu

Pasta and Meat Sauce
or Vegetarian Pasta
Sauteed Vegetables
Dinner Roll, Salad Bar
Fresh Baked Cookies

Tristan ate a hearty meal of pasta with meat sauce and vegetables on day 1.  His food was either separately plated by the chef, or he was allowed to plate his food first to avoid cross contamination at the buffet.  We brought a stash of Oreos for dessert, and he ate those instead of their cookies.  Although I was very impressed by the kitchen's attempt to accomodate Tristan with allergy-friendly cookies, I decided against them after reading a "traces of dairy" warning on the package.

2.  Before the trip, I gave Tristan's third grade team a refresher on food allergies and Epi-Pens.  I used some of the materials from our Food Allergy Summit in NY (and later improved the presentation with a food allergy quiz).  Each teacher tried out a trainer pen, and I answered everyone's questions as best as I could.  We agreed that Tristan would carry his Epi-pen in his pack.  It was really valuable to reconnect with the teachers about the severity of Tristan's allergies.  During his stay, Tristan was grouped with the male teacher in the group for hiking and bunking.  Big thanks to Mr. H and the third grade team!

3.  On the advice of his allergist, Tristan brought Claritin to take nightly.  In an unfamiliar place with allergens all around, it was smart to have some antihistamine in his system.

4.  The naturalists were alerted of kids who had special needs or medications, so they were made aware of Tristan's allergies and medications in his pack.

5.  I tried to prep Tristan about managing his food allergies with a balance of trust and caution.  I needed him to trust that I had prearranged a safe menu for him, but I also warned him that adults could make mistakes, and that he needed to make sure he was getting what was on his menu.  I asked him to look at his copy before each meal, and make sure he knew what he was supposed to be eating.  I think that helped empower him and give him a sense of confidence.

6.  I packed safe granola bars in his pack, in case he wasn't comfortable with a meal, snack, or just got hungry.

When I went to pick Tristan up from school on day 3, he looked relieved to see me. In the car, he told me that he "just missed us so much."  I was so proud of him for having such courage and stamina to collect his worries and gain such a valuable experience.  Three days without him at home gave me a glimpse into the future, with a bit of worry, but a lot of optimism, too.

The day I was there, we hiked around and down to the beach, then back to the Y. The kids would approach the trail as a group, each with different responses and ways of coping.  Some would charge straight down the hill, without looking back.  A few would sidestep down, cautiously taking each step.  Others would look straight down, as not to brush against poison oak, or step into a hole.

My hope for Tristan is that he is cautious, but confident through life, and that he take the time to explore and take in his surroundings.  I hope that when he needs to, he will grab my hand for some extra support, and that he will let go when he's ready.  I may never be ready, but knowing that he will be is an awesome feeling.


  1. Great planning Sarah. I love how you empowered him to check his meal plan against what was on his tray. There are adults with food allergies who assume something is okay when told by someone rather than investigating him/herself. Glad T had a terrific time. His smile tells it all.

  2. What a great post. Thanks for sharing how you prepared. Cautious with confidence is what I hope for my son too!