I spent my college summers working as a camp counselor at my church. It was a day camp, and a rather large one–we had kids who were there every single week for the entire summer. My twentysomething co-counselors and I spent the summer herding excitable, sunscreen-scented children around our church, churchyard, and pool. I'd bandaged cuts, worked with special needs, sent kids home (we had a biter) and even discovered a tick on the scalp of a five-year-old. By the end of my second summer, I felt like a pro.
That was, until Ryan.
Ryan was one of my first-grade campers. He was sweet, round-faced, and had an incredible laugh. I loved this kid–he had been there every day for two summers. We were buds.
Oh, yes. And Ryan was allergic to dairy.
Because of his allergy, I spent a lot of time checking the food we allowed Ryan to eat at camp. He was pretty good at knowing what he could and could not have, so I generally trusted his word, but when there was a question, I checked the label.
On a rainy day in August, we hauled the kids into the multi-purpose room and turned on a movie, realizing we'd exhausted every other rainy day plan in our canon of kid-fun. When all the campers were seated, the counselors walked around and handed out bowls of cheesy popcorn.
Fifteen minutes into the movie, Ryan came up to my chair and reminded me that he couldn't have cheesy popcorn, and asked if there was anything else he could eat. I weeded through a bag of candy, predominately chocolate, and found some fruit-flavored Tootsie Rolls. Perfect, I thought. Fruit-flavored candy is safe. I handed him three candies, and he went back to his spot.
A half hour later, Ryan came back up to find me. His eyes were unsure, and his hand was on his stomach.
"I don't feel good, Miss Ashley."
I looked into his little face and could tell he was in real pain. I picked up the bag of candy, narrowed my eyes to the tiny-font section of ingredients, and there it was.
I tried to keep my voice calm.
"Okay, well, let's go check with Jodi, the director. Maybe your mom left you some medicine, just in case."
We walked hand-in-hand to the church office, where I explained the situation to Jodi. Her motto is and always has been, "Better safe than sorry." We called Ryan's mother, but by the time she got there, Ryan said he was feeling better.
"Oh, he's probably alright. Don't worry. It was three little candies," his mom insisted, I think mostly for the sake of the wide-eyed college student with the vice-grip on her child's hand.
Jodi looked at me, looked at Ryan, and looked at his mother. Then she shook her head. "No, take him to the emergency room. I know he's probably fine, but I won't sleep tonight if you don't take him to get checked. Put it on the church's bill, we'll cover it. Go now."
After some convincing, Ryan and his mom left for the emergency room. We didn't hear anything else for the rest of the day.
The following morning, Ryan's mom called to thank Jodi for sending them to the emergency room. They'd sat there for two hours, and Ryan continued to say he was feeling better, but immediately before being discharged, the doctors noticed his eyes were beginning to yellow–a sign of serious internal infection. They pumped him with antibiotics right there, and he was able to go home that night. As a matter of fact, Ryan was back at camp two days later.
If they hadn't been at the hospital, Ryan probably wouldn't have made it. And I would be responsible for his death. It's been years, but his face is seared into my memory. I remember hugging him on his first day back, and silently thanking Jesus for protecting this sweet boy.
Jodi's decision to send Ryan to the hospital saved his life.
Allergies are becoming an increasingly common issue for day camps, churches, and schools. One in five Americans suffer from either allergies or asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Obviously, prevention is the biggest key to averting disaster, but the correct response is the difference between life and death. I feel the heaviness of this truth every time I think back on the mistake I made that could have cost a seven-year-old his life. A well thought-out response plan to allergic reactions is a must-have for every church, no matter the size.
Protect your children in every way possible. My story is not uncommon, and often, they don't end so happily. I urge you to take our assessment and read this article on avoiding food allergies. Just remember, when it comes to the welfare of the children in your ministry, it's always better to be safe than sorry.
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