Expanding the Gluten-Free Family

by | G+ Amy Leger

This summer we took on a new challenge that not only has allowed us to expand our gluten free family, but also our knowledge and acceptance of other cultures.  We took in an exchange student from Norway who has Celiac Disease. 

A New Celiac Daughter 

It began last spring when a message popped into my email box.  Our field director, Betsy Kiefer has been placing students for the Youth for Understanding Exchange Program for years.  She is faced with many challenges in finding good host families for children from around the world.  In this case, Ida (pronounced EE-dah) from Norway had an extra special issue; she needed a family who was familiar with a gluten-free diet.

Kiefer “Googled” around looking for potential families in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, ”…I utilize search engines on the internet to locate specific organizations and groups in a quest to network for host families who will have a devotion and unique understanding of children with specific needs (e.g. Celiac Disease).”  She ended up connecting with our family and another.

After my husband and I talked about the prospect of having a teenager in the house, we talked to our daughters.  “Where would she sleep?” asked Emma, our 9-year-old celiac daughter.   She had a lot more questions about the process and the program.  The next day she totally warmed up to the idea.  “I could teach her how to dress!” she told me.  We explained to her that Ida probably knew how to dress all on her own. 

 

Family at the Mississippi Headwaters

Family at the Mississippi Headwaters

Within a matter of days we found out that we would be the family for Ida while she lived in the United States.   She told me recently when she looks back at that time; she was relieved that we knew a lot about the diet.  “I didn’t have to worry,” Ida said.  “That was my biggest fear to come to a host family who didn’t know anything about [celiac disease].”

Arranging the Gluten-Free Diet at School

We communicated via email for the next three months to get to know each other better. During that time I was working with the school district to find gluten-free options at my daughter’s elementary school.  Now I just needed to add another school to the list.  Although the site supervisor for the high school’s nutrition program had never dealt with the diet before, he was more than accommodating; even agreeing to cook gluten-free frozen pizzas if we brought them in.  

Ida arrived in August of 2008.  Tired and hungry she came home and settled in.  “Everything’s been good.  I like the food,” she told me.

Exchange Program Meets Gluten-Free and Food Allergy Needs

Every year, the exchange program Youth for Understanding (YFU) brings about 2,000 students to the United States and there are always students with special health considerations.  David G. Barber, Director of Admissions & Registration with YFU told me there have been about 5 celiac disease cases in the past 5 years. “As for students with food allergies, that number is significantly larger and we have likely seen several hundred participants with moderate to severe food restrictions over the past five years,” said Barber. He says these special circumstances can make it challenging to find host families.

Ida was warned as well, that it would be difficult to find a family for her. But after a lot of hard work, those host families finally emerge.  “We greatly appreciate families…who will take the time to look at an individual [student] and see how his or her unique experiences and needs can potentially mesh with your own family’s,” said Barber. 

Celiac Exchange Students in America

Ida has now been with our family for more than three months.  She fits right in to our crazy sense of humor and lifestyle; she loves her school and new friends.  She is having a great time in the United States – gluten-free or not. 

Carving pumpkins is a messy business
Carving pumpkins is a messy business

I asked her what she would tell a student with celiac disease, who is interested in the exchange program.  “Don’t be afraid to apply.  There are a lot of gluten-free options here too, you just need to figure it out .” Ida also mentioned an added bonus, you can find “…lots of stuff here that is not in your home country.”

As for potential host parents who might be hesitant to take in a celiac child, Ida wants you to know it will all be okay.  “The teenager knows a lot about what they can and can’t eat…It probably won’t be as much work for the host parents as they might think”, Ida said confidently. 

From my own experience, this has been fantastic for our family but eye-opening for Emma.  She has a good role model.  Ida is a beautiful, sweet, smart, healthy, strong young lady who just so happens to eat gluten-free.  And—yes—she knows how to dress.  Someday I hope Emma can be a role model in all those ways, for someone else with celiac disease.

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