When families visit the Food Allergy Center at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC), Michael Pistiner, MD, MMSc, hears the same sentiment one appointment after the next – “Where can we meet other families and children who have food allergies?” Feeling inspired to address that sense of isolation, Pistiner and a team of providers at MGHfC set out to create those essential human connections through the Food Allergy Buddies Program.

The Food Allergy Buddies Program at MGHfC aims to improve the quality of life and create a sense of community among children who have food allergies and their families through mentorship, in-person events and on social media. High schoolers (called Bigs) are grouped with middle schoolers (Middles) and elementary schoolers (Littles) to master food allergy management skills and set a positive example. After over 2 years of planning, the program launched in January 2020 and hosted its first event at Belmont Hill School.

Rowan Pandolfo and Henry Ciavocco, both Littles, play a food allergy-friendly game with their Big, Ella Pezzulo. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Adams Pandolfo.

 

The idea for the program was inspired by Pistiner, director of Food Allergy Advocacy, Education and Prevention at MGHfC’s Food Allergy Center. “It is important that kids who have food allergies understand that they are more than just their allergy,” said Pistiner. “We want them to navigate their allergies with confidence so they don’t feel like they’re missing out. A lot of the families I see in clinic express interest in meeting other families whose kids have food allergies and this program allows us the model to do that.”

The day began with training 27 Bigs on their roles in mentoring their 58 Littles. In total, the Bigs and Littles broke into nine teams, and ultimately created their own posters and team names and logos. The games began – literally – when the Littles and their families arrived for an afternoon of fun. From a relay race to “grocery shopping” for safe foods for friends to cross-contact charades, every activity focused on teaching essential food allergy management skills in an engaging, entertaining and team building way.

“It was amazing to see so much hard work pay off with MGHfC staff, our parental advisory committee and other volunteers,” said Maria Theodorakakis, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at MGHfC. “Our biggest goals were helping the Bigs and Littles connect and relate to one another and to have fun, and we achieved both.”

Mharlove Andre, a pediatric clinical research coordinator in the Food Allergy Program at MGHfC, sets up name badges for the Bigs and Littles. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Adams Pandolfo.

 

The food allergy community has a lively presence online, but meeting in person poses a unique challenge. “Being the parent of a child with a food allergy can feel isolating and there are a million things you think about every day surrounding the allergy,” said Nick Adams Pandolfo, a member of the Food Allergy Buddies parent advisory committee. “Families are grateful to have found a group like this where their kids can not only meet other kids with food allergies, but they can also see that those kids thrive too.”

This year, the Food Allergy Buddies Program will host four additional events. Click here to learn more about the program or apply to participate as a Big, Little or parent volunteer. You can also follow the Food Allergy Buddies on Facebook.