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A Walk with Sue Harrison, FAAN Walk for Food Allergies Chairperson Philadelphia

Through my own allergy quest, I’ve met some truly inspiring people. Sue Harrison, the FAAN Chairperson for the Walk for Food Allergies Philadelphia, is one of those people. I recently had the privilege of working for her at the registration table for the walk and met the volunteers behind the scene of this well received and well-organized fundraiser. It was the perfect day, sunny with a few passing clouds and a nice breeze. With grace and purpose, Sue’s volunteers handed out t-shirts, answered questions, and discussed allergies. There was camaraderie between parents as they shared their frustrations and concerns. They also had a nice sense of humor. Teams t-shirts designs, such as No PBJ 4 Me, gave me a chuckle as I signed them in. I recently caught up with Sue after the walk to find out more about her dedication to FAAN.

Project Allergy - How has food allergies affected you and your family?

Sue Harrison - Food allergies have both positively and adversely affected my family: In an adverse way, when my son was diagnosed at 6 months of age it was very difficult. I was told to stop breastfeeding because we were so limited. He was severely allergic to milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanut, tree nuts, sunflower, sesame, flax, mustard, shellfish, legumes, lentils, chickpeas and peas. You could not wipe him with a napkin because he was allergic to the baby wipes and anything with citric acid. You could not hold him if your shirt was not washed in his detergent. He could not be near any animals nor could he be vaccinated due to adverse reactions and severe atopic dermatitis. He was what they call hyper-allergic. He was put on a strict elemental diet of Neocate formula in which he then developed Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EE) from the sunflower oil. He had to be switched to the Infant Neocate without DHA/ARA. He drank that until he was 4 years old. He did not have solid food until after 2 years old. His first food was Gorilla Munch. Positively, I learned so much. I threw myself into learning as much as I could about health and nutrition and what was in these foods and why my son's immune system was not in tact enough to be able to handle these food proteins. I learned so much more about things other than food allergy. I then turned (his allergies) into another positive and began advocating and helping others with ways that I saw them struggling just as I had including foods, new recipes, doctors, skin care, products, reading labels, all sorts of tips.

Project Allergy - Why did you decide to get involved with FAAN?

Sue Harrison - I called FAAN in 2008 when my son was a little over 1 year old. I wanted to be involved and possibly be a local ambassador in my area. They asked me to be an emcee for their Food Allergy Walk at Fairmount Park that August of 2008. The next year I was on the 2009 committee and then the opportunity to Chair a Walk was presented to me and I accepted the challenge. This past Walk in Sept 2012 was my 3rd year chairing the Philadelphia Area FAAN Walk for Food Allergy.

Project Allergy - Has your involvement with FAAN helped you understand your son’s allergies?

Sue Harrison -I have learned so much not only from FAAN but by being involved with them on their mission to advocate, educate and raise awareness and funds for research. I attend the annual Leader's Summit where I meet other FAAN Walk Chairs from around the nation and we share ideas of what works at each of our events, how we can make it better, what we would change and personal struggles, challenges and triumphs. Unfortunately I have seen and heard the most heartbreaking stories of loss due to food allergies and have met the incredible people who have survived after losing their loved ones. It is a deeply grounding and" bring you back to reality" experience after speaking with those people. That is the ugly side of food allergy that we all pray to never experience or have to walk in those shoes.

Project Allergy - How much money was raised at the FAAN Walk for Food Allergies Philadelphia and how will the money be used towards food allergies?

Sue Harrison -This year to date we have raised over $80,000 and there is still more outstanding that is not calculated and still coming in. We also have until Dec. 31 to collect more donations.

Project Allergy - I've always believed its the network of parents who will find answers- can you share some stories about the FAAN committee and how you've helped one another?

Sue Harrison - My committee is absolutely amazing! We have a good core group of 8 women and we truly all really like and respect each other. We work so well and we share our challenges and successes with each other. One member works with parents to strategize school and 504's, and she is a big help to the others. We all have our strengths. I recently took someone I never met before (she was referred to me) shopping at Whole Foods and explaining everything I knew to her. I have people call me, Facebook me, etc all the time for Food allergy 101 info and just basically how to remain positive about food allergies. My one committee member bakes cakes peanut and tree nut free professionally. Another one had Kyle Dine to her school in Marlton, NJ in May for Food Allergy Awareness Week, another who had the mayor's secretary rally the town for their annual celebration and support Food Allergy Awareness Week, one who got a huge fluke tournament to give the proceeds raised to FAAN. We were responsible for having NJ Governor Christie sign for a 2nd year in a row the Proclamation for Food Allergy Awareness Week, one who sells pretzels at a local farmers market in Collingswood each year and she advertises the Walk as she does it. I truly have a group of "Movers & Shakers"!!

Project Allergy - What advice would you give parents who've just learned their child has food allergies?

Sue Harrison - To find another friend or mom who "gets it", find a local support group to go and meet other families going through the same thing, search around for the right pediatrician and allergist that you feel you can work with long term and ones that listen and allow you to be a part of your child's medical journey (and if not, keep searching until you find just the right one, it could take several visits and "interviews" until you find your fit), Never be afraid to ask questions and ask again and again until you understand it yourself, do your own research, join a large support group such as FAAN and keep up to date with the goings on in the food allergy world, start to build your network of support people (family, friends), educate others around you as you learn so that they understand, reach out for help when you need it and don't be afraid to ask and admit that you need help, and buckle up- hold tight- and get ready to learn. But embrace that knowledge, spread it around and turn it around and do something good with it, pay it forward. You will one day be the one to help another.

Project Allergy - How can parents get involved in next years FAAN Walk for Food Allergies or make a donation?

Sue Harrison - We’d love help for next year! I already have someone who reached out to me after the Walk. I embrace help in any capacity that you have to give- handing out posters, looking for potential sponsors, forming a Team, doing a fundraiser, giving an interview or ad to your local magazines and newspapers. I can be reached at WalkPhiladelphia@foodallergy.org and donations can be mailed to FAAN (address at www.foodallergy.org) or accepted at www.foodallergywalk.org/philadelphia_pa12

Project Allergy - Please share anything else you'd like to.

Sue Harrison - Food allergies are scary and we all live with a level of anxiety but try to focus on the positive for the sake of your children. New relationships you have formed, spreading your knowledge, never letting them see your disappointment or sadness (or hearing you discuss the downside to them) and never let your children feel they "can't". Always focus on what they "can" and show them and make it happen. Dirt pie?? No problem, just improvise!!

Janet Millan
Sneezing in the Suburbs
ProjectAllergy.com