For eight weeks in 2017 and 2018, I spent an hour a week mentoring children living with asthma via video conference. Through this Asthma Canada program called Asthma Pals, my co-mentor and I would go over educational slides with the children each week. We’d help these kids learn about their asthma and asthma triggers, introduce them to problem-solving tips, and explore stress management strategies.
I expressed interest in mentoring long before Asthma Canada began Asthma Pals. I eagerly awaited the pilot program in 2017. As a volunteer with Asthma Canada since 2010, an asthma blogger, and a person whose work has almost always involved kids in some capacity, being an Asthma Pals mentor was a natural progression for me.
While we can’t provide medical advice, we can provide kids a safe place to talk about their asthma with mentors who understand, and other kids who understand what it’s like to live with asthma. Inevitably, the kids ended up teaching me a thing or two, too.
Here’s what I learned during my time as an asthma mentor.
Connecting with others is so important
Over the nine years I’ve connected online with adults who have asthma, the strongest desire I’ve seen is that people want to find “their people.” They want to find others who understand asthma, their feelings and frustrations, and how their asthma fits into their life.
Kids are, of course, no different. They exist in an emotionally-charged world, where the values and expectations of those around them shape how they make decisions. Kids are often far more transparent about their experiences and feelings than adults. Because of this, I’ve found they find similarities with others quicker, make friends faster, and open up to trust one another more quickly. These things are why “Asthma Pals” works so well for kids.
After our first session this year, a kid said, “I’m happy I got to meet kids who understand what it’s like to have asthma, and have friends from all across Canada.” Hearing someone say “me too” can be the best educational tool. When kids know that they’re truly not alone, we can help them understand their asthma better — together.
Show and tell: Learning through games and stories
In Asthma Pals, we use the drawing tool function of GoToMeeting to the maximum extent possible. Kids use the tool to participate in learning activities like finding triggers in a house, or circling activities they enjoy to find common interests with each other. They love drawing, so we have them design a team flag and pick a group name on day one. So far, we’ve had the “Asthma Pikachu Avengers” and the “Strong Corgi Lucky Lung All-Star Club”!
As the weeks progress, we guide kids through sessions on problem-solving steps, “going on a sleepover,” sports and exercise (including elite athletes with asthma!), and more. In one session about elite athletes with asthma, I mentioned that singer P!nk has asthma. A girl about 10 years old, already a talented singer-songwriter herself, was beyond excited by this news! Participants share experiences they’ve had, find similarities through these games and stories, and solidify what they’re learning through fun and conversation. They also get a weekly assignment to further synthesize what they’ve learned.
Usually, it doesn’t seem to feel like “homework” to them. They’re excited to share what they’ve done each week — a picture they’ve drawn of trusted adults they can go to for help with their asthma, or a PowerPoint about a goal they have. One such PowerPoint was all about one kiddo and his sister petitioning their dad about getting a “hypoallergenic” Mini Rex bunny; another was about becoming a YouTube star.
As you can see, we keep things fun! Their PowerPoint skills are super impressive, but sometimes they get really creative. This year, the blossoming young singer-songwriter I mentioned earlier wrote a song for her “thank you letter” assignment, thanking us as her mentors! (Seriously, my brain was full of heart emojis!)
Finding solutions together
While we can’t give medical advice, we ultimately give these kids something equally powerful: the ability to find solutions. Our mentees develop a “treasure chest” of tools they’ve amassed. They learn ways to deal with problems that may come up with asthma, who they can trust to help solve them, and how they can find and test solutions for themselves. A simple example is using Post-it notes to remind them to use their inhalers every day.
They learn it’s fine to have bad days, it’s normal to feel frustrated or sad or scared about their asthma, and that others feel that way, too. They also learn strategies to deal with those feelings. Together, they explore how to explain asthma and medications to friends. Overall, they gain confidence in what they’re doing to manage their asthma, which will set them up for success.
One of my all-time favorite quotes from our first year of Asthma Pals came from an eight-year-old participant: “You can change your life even when asthma is in it. If you kind of… treasure it… it’s all cool if you take your puffers and manage it!”
I hope that’s something that all of our participants take away: that you may have to work at managing your asthma, but you can still do most things you want to do.
As a mentor, the kids teach me something every session. It may be a new strategy that one of them has shared or that we thought of together, a simple reminder that it’s OK to ask for help, or some sort of “nugget of wisdom.” Or, they may just nudge me to exercise more! Asthma Pals continually encourages me to examine my thoughts and feelings about my own asthma, which makes me healthier, too.
These kids embrace living with asthma so positively. And when I need it, they are that spark that helps me get back to that place of embracing asthma with positivity, too.
RESP-US-NP-00075 JULY 2018