As a young student, Alex Simko ate lunch by herself every day. She wasn’t a loner – she was stuck by herself because lunchroom workers lectured any other students who walked within ten feet of her. The reason? Food allergies.

An isolated table, away from any other students, was the only way school officials knew how to deal with Simko’s food restrictions. She has severe allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, and has outgrown allergies to corn, beef, and eggs. Because of her severe food allergies, cafeteria workers placed her away from other students, sitting at a card table. Simko, now 16, remembers “I was like, ‘Could you get any more obvious?’”

Her mother, Mary Lenahan, says that people were not familiar with food allergies or how to cope with them. Because Alex kept running into teachers and classmates who didn’t understand food allergies, she decided to take charge. In 2005, she met with representatives in House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s office to discuss food allergies and how legislators could help.

Because of this meeting, Alex was asked to submit written testimony in support of Public Act 096-0349. This legislation would establish voluntary guidelines for managing food allergies in schools. Alex and her mother drove to the state capitol for the hearing about the bill. There, they met another teen who had also submitted written testimony. Watching the state legislature vote on the bill, the pair caught the eye of a representative, who asked them to speak in front of the crowded chamber.

In front of her state representatives, Simko spoke about her struggles with food allergies and the alienation she felt by being singled out. The bill passed, and schools across Illinois now have resources to help them keep students with food allergies safe.

Simko’s work still isn’t done. She is now advocating for a bill that would allow schools to have EpiPens on hand for emergency situations. In October, 2010, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators about national food allergy guidelines. Read more about her allergy advocacy efforts here: http://geneva.patch.com/articles/whiz-kid-alex-simko-allergy-advocate#c

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