Why Camp TAG Is the Key to Confidence

Emma S.

by Emma Sorrentino, Camp TAG Teen Counselor

I can very vividly remember all the days I sat alone at the peanut-free table in elementary school, but more specifically, I vividly remember the feeling of being isolated for something I couldn’t control. I knew I was mandated to sit there to keep me safe, but I remember many conflicting thoughts swirling around my head. With wide eyes holding in tears, I watched everyone in front of me sitting at the other tables with their large groups of friends. I couldn’t help but contemplate, “Why am I different? So, what if I have a peanut allergy, that doesn’t mean I should be separated from the world. Yeah, this is safe, but it doesn't feel safe.” As I moved into middle and high school, I still had the label of “the allergy kid.” It became routine for any food-related policy change in school to become my fault in the eyes of my peers. When students were reminded to put away food in classrooms, everyone would turn and stare at me.  One student even once said, “She’s not going to die, she’s fine! Thanks a lot, Emma.” Another student wouldn’t put away her peanut granola even though she was sitting right next to me. The stress of society’s ignorance surrounding food allergies and its unwillingness to accommodate finally boiled over and my first true panic attack ensued.  

I couldn’t stand it anymore and made it my life's purpose to change the negative stigma placed on food allergies. I wanted the world to wake up and realize we're no different than other people, but we deserve the common courtesy of living without struggle being thrown in our faces.  It was around this time that I found FAACT. FAACT, or the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team, is a national non-profit organization dedicated to providing support to families in the community and educating on signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis, prevention, and inclusivity. I got involved with the organization by becoming a volunteer teen counselor at their Camp TAG program. This is a one-week, summer day-camp with many locations throughout the country that creates an environment for kids with food allergies where they can just be normal kids for the week. Camp TAG creates a safe yet fun world where its campers grow greatly in confidence, increase their knowledge on how to manage their food allergies, and gain the true friendships they crave. While each day I lead mini-lessons related to food allergies, my main focus of the week, along with that of all my fellow counselors, is to give the campers the summer-camp experience that they may not have been able to have otherwise.  At camp, the kids gain the support system I always wished I had growing up. I’d even say that I have benefitted from the last 4 years as a counselor just as much as the children who I’ve become a role model for.  

Camp TAG can be paralleled to one of its most popular activities -- the zip-line.  Before camp, living with their food allergies is like looking up and seeing just how high the tower is. When the child begins to navigate social situations, it’s like climbing up the endless steps; it’s not easy but it has to be done. The top few flights of stairs are like the first few days of camp; the kids must focus and work together to fully face and rise above the anxieties in their lives. When they reach the top, they take their final deep breaths and truly open up to a new outlook. The moment they step off the platform and let gravity take control is just like when they realize they belong and find the inclusion they deserve. They still have harnesses to keep them safe, but they’re also given the chance to become confident on their own. Though the time they spend on the zip-line is fast and still a bit scary, when they reach the end, they find that they are stronger than they knew and are able to move forward with a heightened ability for self-advocacy.

And, although my non-allergic friends sometimes tease me for going to “nut camp” as they call it, I wouldn’t trade in those weeks for the world. I’ve made wonderful friends, where we stay connected all year round, and I know they will be life-long friends. I also get to witness children changing from reserved and tense to open and outgoing all over the course of that one week. I get to help them realize that they’re not alone and that their food allergies don’t define them, but rather they give them strength. I am so thankful for FAACT and Camp TAG, The Allergy Gang!