As an elementary school student, Alex Simko ate lunch alone every day. Cafeteria workers lectured anyone who came within 10 feet of her table.
“They didn’t even give me a real table like the others; they gave me a card table off in the corner,” Simko, now 16, remembered. “I was like, ‘Could you get any more obvious?’ ”
An isolated table was the only way school officials knew how to deal with Simko’s severe food allergies--she’s allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, and as a child, she was also allergic to beef, corn and eggs.
“I went to Whole Foods a lot,” said Simko’s mother, Mary Lenahan, laughing. “Back when Alex was younger, people just weren’t very familiar with it.”
As Simko continued running into teachers and classmates who didn’t know much about food allergies, she decided to do something about it. In 2005, she met with representatives from House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s office to talk about the challenges she faced and what legislators could do about it.
She was asked to submit a written testimony to the public health committee in support of Public Act 096-0349, which would establish voluntary guidelines to help schools manage students with life-threatening food allergies.
Simko and Lenahan drove to Springfield for the bill’s hearing, where they met another teenager who had submitted his testimony. Together, they went in to watch the state legislature vote on the bill, and they caught the eye of one of the representatives.
“She said, “I see that we have two teenagers here. We’d like to hear from them,’” Lenahan said.
In front of a packed chamber, Simko told the Illinois House of Representatives about her struggles--the teacher who had left her in the classroom by herself when the rest of her friends went to get a treat next door, the alienation she felt in the cafeteria.
The bill passed.
Schools across the state now have resources to help them keep students with food allergies safe, and Lenahan said Geneva has been on board since the bill became law.
“Geneva now is absolutely wonderful about how they manage students with life-threatening food allergies. They’re very proactive about it,” she said.
But Simko’s work still isn’t done. She recently returned to Springfield to advocate for another bill which would allow schools to stock non-specific EpiPens for emergency situations. The bill passed unanimously in the state House and Senate and is under review by Gov. Pat Quinn’s office.
And she’s not stopping with Illinois. In October 2010, Simko and Lenahan traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators about instituting food allergy guidelines on a national level.
That bill passed, too.
Though there’s a lot more to Simko than her allergies—she’s an artist, a musical-theater fanatic and an aspiring ER nurse with a dry sense of humor—she doesn’t mind advocating for others in similar situations.
“I figure I might as well make it easier on some of the other kids while I have the chance,” Simko said.
If you would like more information on food allergies or support groups in the area, contact Mary Lenahan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whiz Kid: Alex Simko
Whiz Kid's School: Geneva Community High School
Whiz Kid's Accomplishment: She's an advocate for students with life-threatening food allergies.