Allison Venditti is the mom of 2 little boys who are allergic to various foods. She founded a local support group after her first son was diagnosed with food allergies in the double digits.
KO: What foods are your children allergic to?
AV: My oldest – peanuts, tree nuts (some), eggs, soy, sesame and mangoes. He has outgrown sunflower, poppy, mustard, fish, almonds, Brazil nuts, pecans, peas, pitted fruit (nectarines, plums) and tomatoes. So it was a bit overwhelming at the start.
My youngest – peanuts.
KO: Can you describe the first time you realized (or suspected) they had a food allergy?
AV: Looking back, my oldest always had terrible eczema. He used to throw up breast milk constantly and we actually had to switch him to formula. I gave him a tomato at 6 months that covered his arm in hives (he didn’t even get it in his mouth). At 8 months, he had eggs for the first time and his eyes swelled shut and his face was so swollen he was unrecognizable. His first anaphylactic reaction was at 10 months when he had soy milk.
KO: How many anaphylactic reactions have they experienced?
AV: My oldest – 4 times (soy, sesame, mustard and egg). My youngest – once (peanut).
KO: What did your grieving process look like? Do you feel that you’re in the “acceptance” phase now?
AV: I don’t think we were afforded the time to grieve, honestly. Our allergy journey was not a slow build – it was like a boxing match – the swings just kept coming. We saw the allergist over a dozen times in the first 2 years. Every time we came home with new allergens, we had to re-evaluate, restructure and regroup. By the time we had figured out all my oldest’s allergens, we were already starting to challenge ones that he had outgrown. In the past two years, we have done 5 oral challenges – and passed them all.
I remember when my son turned 2 and started to become aware of his allergens, I spent a few days having a really hard time realizing that this was becoming his issue and one day would not be mine at all. I wrote down all the things I didn’t want for my son (fear, worry) and all the things I did want (confidence, love, independence). I realized this starts now – and I am the one to teach him this. That day, I took him to the grocery store. We read labels. We started naming safe things. I started talking about it out loud. (I had never really included him in shopping before that.)
For me there was nothing to accept. These are my children. This is a piece of who they are – always has been – it just took us some time to find the language to name it. Now I realize that this will always be a journey – ever changing!
KO: What are your biggest challenges as the mom of 2 food-allergic kids?
AV: Exclusion. Not being able to go to the ice cream truck. Potlucks and bake sales. The lack of spontaneity to just go to that birthday party and just eat whatever. This has been solved in large measure by finding great friends, other parents who go out of their way to get my sons safe foods and really make them feel included. Thank you to all these people – you make our lives infinitely better.
For me, I want my kids to decide what they want to do – whether it be rock climbing, hockey or travelling – and to know that they know that we will always try to find a way to make that work with their allergies. I am already seeing that this belongs to them and not me. These are their allergies. This is their allergist. Ultimately treatment, etc. will be up to them and I have to be okay with that eventually. (Not yet!)
KO: How have your children dealt with their food allergies?
AV: This is the only way they have ever known. This is a piece of who they are just like having brown hair.
KO: How often did you eat out before the food allergy diagnosis? How often have you eaten out since?
AV: Not that often. Both my husband and I were raised that eating out was a special treat and we have tried to maintain that. We don’t eat out that often now – but honestly we have a 3 & 5 year old. Who wants to go to a restaurant with a 3 & 5 year old?
KO: Where are your go-to SAFE eating spots in Toronto? Can you tell me why they make you feel safe?
KO: Tell me about the support group you started.
AV: I started my support group after I was unable to find a place to share. There were other groups that did presentations and had speakers but all I wanted was to find other people who were feeling the same things that I was. We have a pretty solid group. When we started, there were about 6 of us. We get about 10 people at each in-person meetup these days (some new, some regulars). A member of the group, Pauline Osena, started a Facebook support group that most of the members joined so we keep the conversation going and can check in even between meetings.
KO: And final question…. How do you find the time to raise 2 kids with serious allergies, manage a support group (or 2), and run a successful business?
I make space in my life for the things that are important to me. I left my 9-5 job to start Careerlove.ca – career coaching for moms & women, and Moms@Work because they gave me two things: the ability to do what I love, and to be available for my children.
The support group came naturally to me – it was a way to connect with others and create another community. I have spent my whole life starting teams, building clubs, starting moms groups – it is who I am – I connect. I don’t want to leave this place remembered as that person who became CEO or VP of sales. I want to be remembered as that person who made a small difference in your life whether I was the first person who made you feel like you could do something great or that person who shared their story and made you feel like it would be okay.