Food Allergy Advocate

Written by: 
Alaetra Smith
Michelle Jernigan ('91)
Michelle Jernigan ('91)

During a routine grocery shopping trip, Michelle Jernigan ('91) never expected to see her 13-month-old son, Morgyn, in such a troubled state -- eyes swollen shut, regurgitating the small portion of a cookie he had sampled. Unknown to Jernigan, Morgyn had life-threatening peanut and tree nut allergies.

"There was just a little voice in my head that said it wasn't a stomach bug," Jernigan says. "I called the store after a suggestion from our pediatrician, and they said there was peanut butter in the cookie."

Since that fateful day 16 years ago, Jernigan -- who earned her bachelor's degree in elementary and special education -- has made it her mission to further educate. In addition to her work as a reading and math tutor, she has volunteered her time for seven years as an attendee and chair of the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) Food Allergy Heroes Walk of Dallas. The event raises money for food allergy education, research and advocacy.

"Food allergies can be isolating," Jernigan says. "Once we started attending the walk, Morgyn got to see other kids just like him."

She says the North Texas Sweethearts, a UNT philanthropy organization, contributed several volunteers to the walk the past few years. Her daughter, Maryssa, a human resources major, is a member.

"I grew up learning how to protect my brother from having a reaction," says Maryssa. "It's become second nature to help him and others."

Jernigan also is a member of the Dallas Community Engagement Council, where staff work with local volunteers and FARE Clinical Network sites to raise awareness of food allergies, which affect about one in 13 kids. In recent years, FARE has been instrumental in getting legislation passed to increase the availability of epinephrine auto-injectors, widely known as EpiPens, at K-12 schools.

"Be gentle with what you say or how you handle those with food allergies, just like any other disability," Jernigan says. "Compassion is key."

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