You are who you are. Not who you’re not.
According to one study, more than 1/3 of children and teens with food allergies reported being bullied specifically because of food allergies. The study found that bullying is typically by classmates and often involve the allergens. Beyond bullying, children with food allergies are at risk for depression, social isolation and anxiety.
Allergy Force recently caught up with JJ Vulopas, author of the children’s book “Land of NOT” and “The Class That Can: Food Allergies,” and Founder of the ‘The Land of Can’ food allergy blog. JJ, who graduated from UPenn in 2019, has lived with life threatening food allergies since the late 90’s when he was diagnosed with allergies to milk, eggs, and tree nuts.
After JJ epically failed a food challenge during elementary school, his family looked for age appropriate material to help him educate his classmates. They came up short. There was “Alexander the Elephant” and not much more. His school’s efforts to keep him safe — like asking parents to stop bringing in popular snacks for birthday treats — tended to shine a harsh light on the allergy kid. After his teacher read “Alexander the Elephant to his class,” JJ recounted, “some classmates just called me ‘Elephant Boy’.”
JJ turned difficult experiences as a food allergy trailblazer in school into a quest to change how the world looks at
JJ’s experiences in school inspired him to write "Land of NOT", a book he would have enjoyed reading when he was little. “Land of NOT” is a story that acknowledges everyone has a NOT. While JJ wrote the book for schools and allergy families in his community, it has since been widely published and distributed.
The “Land of Not” is a youth empowerment piece that addresses any invisible disability, not just food allergies. JJ shares that "to 2nd to 4th graders, it just makes sense. Seeing when they get it is the single most rewarding thing about writing the book.” Since publishing the book, JJ has worked with child development specialists and educators to create supplemental educational materials for schools to help raise children and families’ awareness about life with an invisible disability. JJ would like to see the material in every school, every classroom.
Not stopping there, JJ went on to create The Land of Can blog in 2018 to empower young people to define themselves by who they are and who they can be. Not by who they’re NOT!
Growing up in a Greek and Italian household, JJ’s family culture revolved around food. He gives a lot of credit to his parents for helping him learn to embrace life and all it has to offer while keeping his food allergies in perspective.
"…everything my parents did—even when we disagreed—they did out of love.”
Sometimes his parents had to say “no” and he’d get upset because it wasn’t the answer he wanted. JJ got angry about having to carry his epinephrine everywhere. He reflects, “as I got older, through my teen years, I became more aware and understood that everything my parents did—even when we disagreed—they did out of love.”
JJ’s parents imparted a “CAN" mindset to JJ and taught him empathy, compassion and resilience along the way. That love and support didn’t stop with his parents. “My little sister didn’t have allergies,” JJ explains, “and she had to grow up in a milk and nut free home. She’s my fiercest advocate today.”
What advice would the Land of Can creator give to parents of children with food allergies?
Keeping your kid safe has to be a priority.
Food allergies affect everything, so you have to constantly be proactive.
Try not to be aggressively protective if you can help it. Sometimes other people just don’t understand.
Be mindful that your child might also be suffering socially and psychologically. Sometimes protectiveness can do more harm than good.
JJ suggests that parents, “never assume that other people know what is right. You need to help them. You’ll find that people generally want to do what is right and want to help you.”
"… the FA community needs to raise awareness, thoughtfully, mindfully and in a positive and unified way…”
JJ’s hope is that a cure will be found. But until there is a cure, JJ hopes the food allergy community will continue its efforts to raise awareness — thoughtfully, mindfully — in a positive and unified way that transcends any animosity over differences of opinion or approach, or perceived insensitivity. “We need to be respectful and kind,” JJ adds. “We’re all in this together and will find our way through it faster, together.”
Thank you, JJ, for being a force for positive change in food allergy education on behalf of the food allergy community. Thank you for sharing your “can do” spirit and story with Allergy Force and the world.
"Life gives you challenges to help you become the greatest version of yourself."
The Allergy Force Changemaker Series shines a light on movers and shakers in the food allergy community who drive change and bring positivity to the space for the benefit of the entire community.
Photo Credit: Thank you to Austin Pacheco on Unsplash for use of the post image