I am JJ: We must get creative to raise food allergy awareness


Blog Post #128 — When I was in high school, I was a member of a mental health organization that traveled across the nation raising awareness about depression and suicide among young people. Using creative, high-energy presentations, we helped to transform the cultures of schools and save lives.

It was an incredibly rewarding experience.

One staple at our presentations was a LEGO table, a card table that had a giant base to build LEGO structures. While most of the presentation was run entirely by young people, my dad would usually lead the LEGO demonstration.

“We are going to build the most incredible LEGO city imaginable,” he’d say asking for “creative” volunteers. As the volunteers would approach the stage, he would dump a huge box of LEGO pieces everywhere. With the LEGO pieces bouncing across the stage, he carefully would place the four plastic legs into the bottom of the table, which he would then place directly in front of the volunteers.

“Two rules,” he’d announce into the microphone. “Every volunteer standing here must use at least five LEGO pieces. You have three minutes to build the most creative city imaginable. Go.”

As a giant timer appeared on a screen, we would play music over the microphone as the volunteers rushed to build the most creative city they could in three minutes. When the buzzer would ring, we would witness some pretty incredible structures.

After complimenting the students on their creativity and having the crowd applaud, my dad would then go into the heart of the lesson.

“Indeed this is a creative structure,” he’d say. “But I have a question. How much more creative would this city be if we took this piece here and…” At this point he would take a piece off the table, hold it high in the air, and run to the back of the auditorium. “…and place it here.”

The crowd would usually laugh, as he’d race to the front, grab another piece before running to the back and outside the auditorium.

“Here!” he’d say into his live microphone. More laughter.

“Of course the city would be more creative,” he’d say when he returned. “So the question is, 'Why did everyone build it on the table?'”

He never told them to build on the table. It wasn’t one of the rules. And yet, time and time again, the volunteers — those who deemed themselves the most creative in the room — would build on the table. Only twice in more than 200 presentations did anyone build off the table.

“If we are going to make a difference with suicide prevention across this nation, we have to take a different approach,” he’d say, kicking the LEGO table across the stage. “We can’t just say we are out-of-the-box thinkers. We have to get creative. We have to think differently. That’s how we will save lives.”

This is exactly the approach we must take for raising awareness about food allergies.

We must find new, creative approaches to raise awareness because kids are still dying.

If we want to end food allergy bullying, we can’t just accept what we have tried before. Too many kids are bullied each day, and we’re still clinging to antiquated ideas that didn’t work the first time around.

And we must do all of this in such an inspiring way that doesn’t increase anxiety levels among a food allergy population that is already as skittish as a toddler will be at your city’s fireworks celebration this week.

I've been working hard behind the scenes developing some creative ideas that I know will work. I can't wait to share them with you over the next few months.

Truly making a difference will take collaboration. It will take hard work. It will take unabashed creativity. Who’s with me?


JJ Vulopas is a rising senior at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. An advocate for young people, JJ has lived with food allergies his entire life. He is the author of the children's book, Land of Not. You can read his daily blog at www.thelandofcan.com and follow him @thelandofcan on Twitter and Instagram.