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Food Allergy’s Educating Dynamo


Karen Harris, President and Founder
Food Allergy Kids of Atlanta [1]  

To look at the activities and accomplishments of the non-profit Food Allergy Kids of Atlanta (FAKA), you’d think a full-time staff was running the operation. There are regular support group meetings, the organizing of food-free events for occasions like Easter and Halloween, and seminars and educational workshops for local families coping with food allergies.

As if that weren’t enough, FAKA holds workshops for school educators across the state of Georgia and has advocated at the State Capitol. But save for a few much-appreciated volunteers, the brains and muscle behind the operation is a tireless force of nature named Karen Harris.

In the second of installment of The Allergy Advocates series, Allergic Living is pleased to honor Karen Harris for her extraordinary public service. Harris goes above and beyond to support, advocate and educate on behalf of families living with food allergies.

Consider this: Harris has made food allergy and anaphylaxis awareness presentations to literally thousands of school teachers, administrators and nurses. (Her presentations to schools have become so popular that at times she has trouble scheduling them.)

She has been invited to speak before the state association of school nurses and other educational conventions. She is also now the vice president of education and outreach for Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team, a new national food allergy organization.

Senior Allergic Living contributor Claire Gagné speaks to Karen Harris about her daughter’s multiple food allergies, what makes schools listen to her and where she’s setting her sights next.

Your youngest daughter has multiple food allergies, but there are other allergies in the family. Tell me the history.

I have three children, my oldest is 19, she manages a tree nut allergy and she is very allergic to horses. My son is 16, he doesn’t have food allergies but when he gets around hay or dust, he gets bad respiratory and eye symptoms [he doesn’t have asthma]. My youngest daughter, Mika, who is 6 years old, has multiple severe food allergies. Currently, she can only eat nine or 10 foods. She’s on an amino-acid formula.

Wow. I can’t imagine.

Yes, we had a really difficult time with her diagnosis. We went through 11 pediatricians before we were referred to an allergist. When she was around six months old I gave her a bite of banana, and immediately hives popped up all over her face.

When we saw the allergist for the first time, they did a skin-prick test on her back and she had a severe reaction. They told us we were dealing with multiple food allergies. I was lost and terrified.

I remember coming home and just starting to educate myself. I found one local Yahoo group in Georgia. I decided there needed to be more support. I launched a website and held lots of support group meetings until I became more educated about food allergies and anaphylaxis. I served on the executive council for the former Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network and participated in their Safe@School training program. From there I started entering schools here in Georgia and really built a strong relationship with our schools and educators. It just spread by word of mouth.

What do you teach in your presentations and why have you been so successful?

We cover how to avoid the allergen, recognizing the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction, how to enact emergency protocol and state laws. I think we’re successful because our presentations only include facts and statistics. We never share personal opinion and we don’t allow families or students with food allergies to come to the presentations. I go in as a third party to support the school, and they often don’t even know I have a child with food allergies.

As a parent, you might have one child going to school with allergies. We don’t always realize the school educators may have to deal with 70 children with allergies.

I remember one educator coming up to me after a presentation, literally shaking. She said: ‘I don’t know what to do. I have six kids in my class with food allergies and they’re all different foods, and I have an autistic kid who has to have peanut butter.’ It was obvious she was nervous and fearful. But that’s who we want to be confident – our educators – so they can teach our children and know what to do in an emergency. We don’t want them scared or nervous.

What was it like testifying for stock epinephrine in the schools legislation in Georgia?

The law has actually been in place for a while, but there were some roadblocks that made it difficult for schools to get access to the medication. While there was immunity for educators to administer the medications, there was not any kind of legal protection for doctors to write the prescription, so we decided to improve the law.

When I was testifying, I was able to use data from one of our counties that does have stock epinephrine in its schools. I could say that in Forsyth County, epinephrine has been administered eight times in the last two years, and five of those were stock epinephrine. Some of the senators were then asking why this wasn’t a mandate.

Next: Lobbying in the peanut state and dining out

Karen Harris with her family.

Have you ever encountered resistance from politicians when lobbying in the ‘peanut state’?

No. Our state legislators have provided their full support during lobbying efforts. In fact, during the last meeting in our state’s capitol to strengthen Georgia’s current stock epinephrine bill, many legislators were instrumental in strengthening the bill even further.

I find it interesting you home-school your daughter, and yet so much work you’ve done is to support schools.

I home-schooled all my children; it is not because of her food allergies. But I think it’s another reason why we’ve been so successful in schools – I haven’t directly had any type of negative situation or instance in a school with my child.

On top of home-schooling Mika and your non-profit work, you work five days a week at your family’s restaurant. How do you do it all?

I don’t know. I just do. I’m just always going. On Memorial Day weekend I turned off my phone, went outside and lay out in the sun and just relaxed and played. It was very nice. I haven’t taken a vacation in four years. Obviously I’ll need to take more time for that. But it [FAKA] just took off so fast. I keep saying, ‘we’re going to have down time,’ but the time just keeps filling up. And that’s OK.

Your daughter is 6 now. What is life like for her, with all her allergies?

She’s a very happy child. She eats a lot of chicken and sweet potatoes. She can eat a lot of fruit.

We are very active outdoors. She rides her bicycle every day and plays with the neighborhood kids. And then she has her food-allergy friends. That’s one of the great things about starting a support group, is that you can create that environment for them.

We are scheduled for monthly food challenges beginning in June. It will be our first time trying to find additional foods that she might be able to tolerate. There are some parts of her restrictions that are still difficult. She’s never had a real birthday cake. [The family finds allergy-safe alternatives, such as Dum Dum cakes.]

Your family is in the restaurant business. What improvements can be made in that industry?

We own a Japanese sushi bar. We are extremely high volume, so I see both perspectives. (I’m also an adult with a soy allergy.) Any type of legislation or movement in this area really needs to be in the best interest of both the food-allergic community and the restaurant industry. We as food-allergic individuals need to take the proper precautions and do the best that we can to make sure that we are provided a safe meal. From the restaurant perspective, we have a responsibility as well.

There is still room for a lot of improvement and that means educating the community as a whole and providing materials and resources. Moving forward we hope to see good things happen.

Learn about Food Allergy Kids of Atlanta here [1], and FAACT here. [2]

Honorees in The Allergy Advocates Series 
Lisa Rutter: A Force of Good for Food Allergy [3]
Cathy Owens: The Nurse Who’s the Allergic Student’s Protector [4]
Jenny Sprague: Courageous Woman who Unites Allergy Bloggers [5]
Gina Mennett Lee: A Voice of Reason for Food Allergy at School, Daycare [6]

To submit an “Allergy Advocate” candidate for consideration, write to editor@allergicliving.com, and tell us what’s special about your nominee.