Keep it Teal for an Inclusive Halloween
by Jennifer Lendvai-Lintner
[Image description: A display of pumpkins promoting the Teal Pumpkin Project sit on a hay bale in a front yard. One pumpkin is teal with a purple masquerade-style mask and another is orange with a black mask. Two smaller pumpkins accompany these.]
For the first few years after my son's diagnosis of multiple severe food allergies, trick-or-treating wasn’t difficult to manage because he was so young. All that changed the year Bence was three. He had caught on to the hype and was all-in. That year Bence was going to be Marshall from the cartoon show Paw Patrol. Marshall is an adorable Dalmatian puppy clad in fireman’s garb. For weeks leading up to Halloween, he’d don his Marshall suit, mini red backpack, and fireman’s hat complete with fuzzy ears. He couldn’t wait to go trick-or-treating.
For several years, my family had participated in the Teal Pumpkin Project, an awareness initiative promoted by Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). The Teal Pumpkin Project encourages homes to have non-food items like little toys or trinkets available in a separate bowl for trick-or-treaters. This way, children with food allergies or other conditions can have a safe and inclusive Halloween.
That year, I put out my teal pumpkins early. They were displayed prominently along with informational posters, so passers-by could see what it was all about. My outreach also included presenting about the Teal Pumpkin Project at a local moms’ club. I distributed informational flyers in our immediate neighborhood, too. I even wrote a letter inviting neighbors to join us in participating. Yet, as Halloween approached, there was only a single teal pumpkin displayed in our vicinity.
I remained hopeful. I had reached out with a personal plea, so surely folks in our neighborhood would jump onboard by All Hallow’s Eve. Maybe they didn’t want to bother painting a pumpkin teal, but of course they would have some non-food treats to distribute, I reassured myself. Who wouldn’t be in favor of including all kids on Halloween? Everyone would want to participate.
October 31 arrived. My kids were amped to go trick-or-treating. Though I had a plentiful stash of safe candy to swap out for Bence after the fact, I was banking on the hope that at least a few houses would offer safe, non-food treats. I knew how excited he was; I wanted so badly for Bence to be able to join in on this childhood tradition. The evening was cool, but comfortable as we commenced trick-or-treating. The first house we visited had a teal pumpkin. Bence got a cool cardboard airplane he could assemble—success! As he and his big sister Nóra ran back to meet us at the sidewalk, his eyes were bright; he was ready for more fun.
But the next houses we went to offered candy only. My husband and I watched from a few feet behind as our little Dalmatian peered into the treat bowl on tiptoes, and in the absence of safe options, turned around, dejected.
“I can’t have any of that stuff,” he mumbled.
His spotted shoulders sagged a little more with each disappointment, fuzzy ears hanging low. I had emergency lollipops for just this scenario. I assured Bence that I had loads of special treats at home, but my heart was breaking for him. This was no fun at all. It was Halloween. The emotion of the night was supposed to be sheer delight, not utter disappointment.
At Nóra’s pleading, we opted to do one more house on our way home. Bence hung back with my husband and me, treat sack pitifully empty, tail dangling limp. When Nóra peeked at the treats offered to the gaggle of kids crowded in the doorway, she spotted some children receiving plastic Halloween drinking cups.
She turned to us and shouted, “They have PRIZES, not just candy! Come on, Bence!!!”
Nóra emphatically waved her brother forward. Bence hopped down from my husband’s arms and tentatively padded to the door. The lady offered him a bag of pretzels, but Nóra spoke up.
“Can he have a cup?” she asserted.
The woman looked taken aback. The special gifts were meant for neighbor children she was expecting. I interjected, pretty sure she mistook Nóra’s advocacy for bold, greedy rudeness.
“My son has extensive food allergies and isn’t able to have most of the treats handed out tonight. His sister was so excited to spot some non-food items,” I explained.
With that, the woman’s face completely changed. She began shoveling in as many of the non-food items as his little sack could hold. She gave him two plastic Halloween cups and stickers galore. I was beyond grateful for her compassion to our sweet little pup. We made our way back home, the night mercifully saved by that last lucky house. When Bence spread out his loot on the floor, it was sparse to any experienced eye. Bence was happy, though, and for the moment, that’s what counted.
The experience haunted me, however. I’ll admit it—I cried myself to sleep that night. I felt so sad for him. I was angry his allergies denied him so many of the simplest childhood pleasures. Even just once in awhile, I wanted him to be able to be carefree and included, instead of left out.
When I woke up on November 1 that year, I was determined. I had 364 days to figure out how to make Halloween more inclusive for Bence next year and each year after that. That’s why when October rolls around, I kick into mom-advocate mode and spread the word about the Teal Pumpkin Project.
Interestingly, since that frightful Halloween night, our family has expanded. My youngest daughter Hilde has a feeding tube, so I feel more compelled than ever to advocate for the Teal Pumpkin Project. This initiative promotes inclusion for children with all kinds of conditions, not just food allergies. FARE’s Teal Pumpkin Project makes a huge difference in the lives of children like my son and daughter. I urge you to participate in the Teal Pumpkin Project because Halloween should be happy for all!
Author's note: A version of this article appeared in October 2020 on Today Show Parenting Team as well as a guest blog post on www.marysusanmcconnell.com.
[Image description: The author's son is pictured in his car seat in his Marshall costume, which is a Dalmatian fireman.]