Omar Mughal’s mom and dad had scoured the country, searching for a campus where their child could thrive both socially and academically. Above all, they needed to find a place where Omar would be safe.
Homeschooled his entire academic life, the fourth-grader grappled with severe food allergies that made it impossible to be around wheat, gluten, rye or barley. Ingesting, inhaling or touching certain foods was out of the question. Even being touched by someone who came in contact with these seemingly innocuous ingredients was downright dangerous for Omar, who was also moderately allergic to peanuts and eggs.
Anas and Iffet Mughal, who had lived in New Jersey, finally moved to Irvine and enrolled their son at Stonegate Elementary School in January. Based on their research, they were confident that the Irvine Unified School District could accommodate Omar’s needs.
Still, they could not have envisioned just how far the students and staff at Stonegate would go to make him feel welcome.
“It’s beyond belief,” Anas Mughal said.
Prior to Omar’s arrival, a team comprised of his parents, the principal, teacher Patrice Hawker and school nurse Vicki McRobbieralls gathered to talk about allergens and to brainstorm strategies. Nurse McRobbieralls took the lead in developing a course of action, which was relayed – along with the severity of Omar’s allergies – to the entire fourth-grade class.
Among the strategies to reduce the risk of a reaction, it was decided that all students would use hand-sanitizing wipes before entering Omar’s classroom. Gloves would be used for hands-on science and computer lessons. A designated allergen-free table would be set up for lunch.
And it didn’t end there.
Mrs. Hawker tailored individual lesson plans to make sure Omar could safely participate. When a P.E. activity called for the use of scarves, Hawker made sure that one was left untouched by the other children. For Valentine’s Day, a “Red Fruit” party was planned in lieu of traditional sweets. A parent even established a schedule for children to eat allergen-free lunches with Omar.
Students, including 10-year-old Jonathan Phelps, embraced the accommodations. More to the point, they embraced Omar.
“We wanted him to feel welcome and fit in,” Phelps said.
They also wanted to ensure their new friend and classmate remained healthy. After Omar was cast in a play about California’s gold-mining history, some of the other children noticed that his character, as scripted, was supposed to remove his shoes and socks.
“They asked, ‘What if there’s food on the carpet?’ Mrs. Hawker said. “They just thought a little deeper to ask the question, ‘Can Omar do that?’”
The socks stayed on, and not only has Omar managed to avoid contact with foods that could compromise his health, he also recently received some good news from his doctor: The list of ingredients that could hurt him appears to be shrinking.
To mark Omar’s progress, and to celebrate the selfless efforts of his classmates, a surprise party was held in Mrs. Hawker’s room on Thursday, June 3. Principal Bruce Terry was there, as was Mrs. McRobbieralls and Omar’s proud parents, Anas and Iffet.
Quietly, humbly, Omar told a visitor that he appreciated all that his fellow students have done on his behalf.
“I think it’s cool,” he said. “I feel pretty good about it.”
Meanwhile, Principal Terry was also praising Mrs. Hawker’s class for working together to support one of their own. Alluding to their reward, he gestured to the mysterious brown paper bag he brought with him.
“This is our gift to you,” Mr. Terry said, “for being the consummate – that’s a big word – team.”
A few minutes later, Omar and his classmates were off to recess, but not before munching on their special treats – allergen-free chocolate bars.
(Update: Orange County Register reporter Ellyn Pak wrote a nice story on Omar and his friends at Stonegate. You can find it here.)