By Karen Billing
For the last two years, Carmel Valley 6-year-old Charlotte Bailey has been the top fundraiser for the San Diego Walk for Food Allergy. In two years, Charlotte, who is allergic to peanuts, pecans and coconut, has raised $7,550 and has already raised $5,800 for this year’s walk.
The Baileys have been so involved with the walk that the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) organization asked Charlotte’s mom Michelle to chair this year’s event. She was more than willing to take the lead.
“I was really flattered and honored to chair the event in support of Charlotte but also to help reach out to the community and spread the word to make the walk even more successful,” Bailey said.
The walk will be held Saturday, June 29, at NTC Park at Liberty Station. Registration is free and individuals and teams can set their own fundraising goal. This year’s walk is different as it supports FARE, a new group representing a merger between the two leading food allergy organizations, Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network and the Food Allergy Initiative.
“My biggest hope is that this reaches somebody who was maybe in my position, just finding out their child has food allergies and asking ‘How can I get involved? How can I help?’ Getting involved was one of the best things I could’ve done,” Bailey said.
Charlotte was 2 years old when they discovered her allergies. As a baby she would react to eating eggs so the doctor advised them to be careful when they first tried to feed her peanut butter. Sure enough, a dab of peanut butter on the side of her lip triggered reaction and they took her through a complete allergy test.
Charlotte will be 7 in July and as she’s gotten older there are new challenges. Michelle has to put her trust in other people, that they understand what Charlotte faces and she also has to put trust in her young daughter to be responsible.
“I have to trust that we’ve prepared her to do the right things and make the right decisions,” Bailey said.
Charlotte knows that if there’s no label, she can’t eat it.
“We’re very honest with her, we don’t sugar-coat anything,” Bailey said. “She needs to take it seriously. We’ve met children who are bullied because of their food allergies so it’s important to us that she’s not afraid to stand up and speak for herself and not be embarrassed. She’s a trouper.”
The Baileys have taught Charlotte that she needs to be her own advocate. They have to always be aware because her allergens can pop up in unexpected places — especially as coconut is especially popular these days with coconut oil and coconut water.
At a recent breakfast outing, Charlotte asked about one menu item that turned out to be cooked in coconut oil. They also have to be careful at places that serve smoothies because coconut water is used in some of the smoothies.
“It can be extremely overwhelming,” Bailey said of looking out for hidden allergens. “It’s something you can manage if you have the right information.”
She welcomes talking with other parents, sharing her stories and fears about what they can do and how to make sure their children are safe.
The more Bailey has gotten involved, the more she realizes just how many children suffer from food allergies—one in every 13 in the U.S. or about two in every classroom.
“It’s severe, urgent and people need to be aware. I don’t think a lot of people understand the severity of food allergies. It’s helpful to raise awareness,” Bailey said.
Just in March, a 19-year-old in Georgia who was allergic to peanuts died after eating a cookie that contained peanut oil. His friend gave it to him and swore it didn’t have peanuts. Also in March, a 7-year-old in Virginia died after having a reaction at her school and the school was unprepared to handle the reaction.
“The key is prevention,” Bailey said, stressing how much FARE works to get information out, provide options and ensure people and places know how to help in the event of an emergency, because reactions are quick and can be life-threatening.
The organization works with a variety of organizations, from hotels to restaurants to theme parks. Locally, FARE has put its resources toward a successful effort at SeaWorld. Not only does the park now offer gluten-free and allergen-friendly Shamu-shaped chocolate bars, FARE also sponsored employee training so they know how to handle guests with allergen needs.
FARE also provides community grants and raises funds and awareness through 67 walks across the country. A patient education conference is held every year to learn of new advances and cutting-edge technology, some of it happening right here in San Diego. A new peanut allergy patch is currently being researched at Rady Children’s Hospital.
The patch aims to increase tolerance in patients by exposing them to small amounts of the allergens to help prevent it from being a life-threatening reaction.
“It’s really exciting, compared to when I first started, I feel like research has already come really far,” Bailey said.
To learn more or register for the walk, visit foodallergywalk.org.