Alumna uses MSU experience to educate, inspire others about food allergies and body image
By Lauren Knapp
In 2015, Erin Konheim Mandras was lost.
Her son, Austin, had just been diagnosed with severe food allergies. She also had an older son, Levi, and she wasn’t sure how to explain it.
“How do I possibly explain to Levi that Austin could die if he ate a food without terrifying and traumatizing Levi? How do you explain that to a 3-year-old?”
Konheim Mandras went to Amazon, looking for children’s books about food allergies to help her begin the conversation. There were limited options—only four at the time—but they would become essential reading for the family. It helped provide her with the language she needed to explain to her kids what was happening.
Austin had had such severe reactions to various foods, he had learned to associate eating with pain. Before long, the then-18-month-old wouldn’t eat anything. He was introduced to an intensive program at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland to help “retrain him to trust food, to learn to eat.”
Konheim Mandras, meanwhile, kept having flashbacks.
Years before, while a student and soccer player at Michigan State University, Konheim Mandras had struggled with food, too: She had developed—and later overcame—an eating disorder.
Now, she is an educator, advocate and coach to help people better understand allergies, body image and how to overcome challenges.
FRAMING THE MESSAGE
“I studied elementary education because I love to teach. Even though I aspired to coach, I felt it went hand-in-hand. The same tactics I learned in my courses I used in coaching,” said Konheim Mandras, a 2006 graduate who is now a happily married mother of three (including son, Nolan). “One of the reasons I loved elementary education was because of children’s books. It’s a good way to portray major life lessons in ways children can understand.”
Konheim Mandras and her family had relied on children’s books when they were transitioning to life with a child having serious food allergies. But there were so few resources, she wanted to add to the dialogue—and contribute a new perspective.
In 2019, she published “Austin’s Allergies” (Mascot Books), inspired by her son’s true story. Told through the perspective of a 4-year-old boy, the book explores how Austin’s allergies were discovered, steps to help keep him safe and important concepts to understand.
Now, she regularly visits schools in Maryland (and, increasingly, in the Detroit, Michigan-area, where the family will be moving in 2020) to speak with K-2 students about the book, raise food allergy awareness and educate them on a topic so prevalent in their lives. According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), one in 13 children have a food allergy—or roughly two in every classroom.*
That’s why she’s working tirelessly to share the book with as many people as she can.
Epinephrine is the shot that goes in my thigh /Quote from “Austin’s Allergies,” helping explain in simple language and rhyme how to keep children who have allergies, like Austin, safe
It makes me feel better after 10 seconds go by
Konheim Mandras has partnered with the nonprofit Allergy & Asthma Network. Tonya Winders, the organization’s president and chief executive officer, has helped distribute 200 copies of the book to doctor’s offices across the country to promote awareness. (A portion of each book sale is donated to the organization for research and education.)
In addition, Konheim Mandras is working with local restaurant owners of Miss Shirley’s Café (and former teachers), who plan to donate more than 150 copies of the book to every Baltimore City Public School and every Ann Arundel County Public School, the two districts where their restaurants are located.
Most recently, Konheim Mandras has partnered with Debbie Phelps, a former Baltimore teacher and principal and mother of Olympian Michael Phelps, to be a part of The Exchangeree. The Exchangeree is an initiative from The Education Foundation, of which Phelps is the executive director, to provide teachers a place to share school supplies they no longer need, and take school supplies they now do. Part of the program (beginning in Baltimore, with plans to expand nationwide) are children’s books, and “Austin’s Allergies” is among them.
KICK THE SCALE
Konheim Mandras is also author of Kick the Scale, a blog dedicated to her journey in overcoming an eating disorder while a student-athlete at MSU. She writes in intimate detail about her history, including this excerpt from a January 2018 post:
There was no possible way I would’ve been able to battle and overcome my eating disorder without immediate identification, without others taking the proper steps to get me help and without the support of Michigan State. It is too difficult to overcome an eating disorder on your own. It is a physically and psychologically debilitating disorder. It is essential for coaches and others to recognize there is an issue, address it, set plans in motion to get the player help and then provide ongoing support.
Fortunately, I was surrounded by and provided with the essential resources that allowed me to recover from such a serious disorder. Through intensive therapy, medication, support from the athletic department and coaching staff, support from my family, and interventions from other physicians and specialists, I was able to battle, and eventually overcome, anorexia nervosa. I went from rock bottom my sophomore year to playing my best soccer ever by my senior year. As a senior, I served as captain for the team … and the program made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in history. I started every game of my career there, except one. And that was when I was at my sickest, and those around me were deciding on whether they needed to medically disqualify me. I am so thankful my coaches were looking out for me every step of the way. It made a significant difference in my healing and eventual comeback.
From my story, some may see my years at Michigan State in only negative terms. But while I developed a major health problem while I was there, Michigan State was the place with the people and resources that saved my life.
Today, Konheim Mandras is tied for the most starts in MSU women’s soccer history, and is third in all-time assists. She was the 2017 recipient of the Nell C. Jackson Outstanding Alumna Award from MSU’s Varsity S Club, recognizing alumnae for their accomplishments and service to the community.
She now speaks at conferences, schools, summer camps and more to share her story in hopes of reaching those who are struggling.
“I want to give people hope that there is a way out,” she said. “I want to give people hope that they can overcome this. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. I am proof.”
After graduating from MSU, Konheim Mandras served as an assistant coach to the same women’s soccer team that was so supportive of her, followed by coaching positions at Towson University and Loyola University Maryland before choosing to be at home full-time—and also changing perceptions with her blog and book.
“Being a Spartan is my identity,” she says. “I feel like the university gave me life. It gave me opportunity. It fulfilled my dreams.”
* FARE statistics on food allergies in the United States: foodallergy.org/resources/facts-and-statistics
Read the blog: kickthescale.com
“Austin’s Allergies Go to a Birthday Party” will be published in 2020! Both the original book and the second book are illustrated by Nina Kolbe—Mandras’s best friend, MSU roommate and currently a general and trauma surgeon in Troy, Mich.
Learn more: austinsallergies.com