Watching 14-year-old Alexa Foster take fourth in a national triathlon or running 11 miles with her cross country team you'd never guess the kind of condition she was in just over a year ago.
"I couldn't run cross country or swim," said Alexa, who had been a competitive swimmer and runner before. "I couldn't even use my legs while I was sitting. I had to wear a back brace and couldn't wear tight clothing or anything. I took the elevator at school; I couldn't take the stairs."
Alexa and her mother, Lisa, knew there was something wrong for years but none of the doctors they were visiting could figure it out. After two years in physical therapy for back pain and constant stomach pain, Alexa was tired. She felt relieved when the diagnosis finally came - Celiac disease.
"Honestly, I was happy because I wanted to stop being in pain," Alexa said. "I just wanted to stop being hurt all the time, and I'm glad that I finally found out something was wrong. I was worried that I'd never find out what was wrong, and I knew there was something."
Though she was happy to have found a cause for her pain, the diagnosis is still something complicated. Celiac disease is a condition that causes a severe reaction to gluten - a common name for the proteins found in specific grains. In Alexa's case, even the smallest amount of gluten could cause huge stomach problems.
"If there's a tiny little crumb it will make her sick," Lisa said. "So you're trying to figure all that out. She has to have gluten-free lip-gloss and how do you find that? How do you find food?"
Celiac disease is life long and has no cure. The only treatment is a diet change. Lisa said most people who have Celiac disease don't even know they have it. It can be hard to diagnose because symptoms may vary from one person to another.
"You're born with it, genetics, but there are triggers." Lisa said. "Some people cannot even have triggers until later. Some people have it really young. They don't know what the triggers are, maybe a bad virus."
Alexa went through years of testing and physical therapy before she was diagnosed. In that time her mom developed a way to make her feel better.
"Every time they poked her with a needle I'd take her to Jamba Juice," Lisa said. "So it was really cool when she got diagnosed that that was one of the things that we could still do."
Jamba Juice offers many smoothies that contain no gluten. Their website tells specifically the few items to avoid. The company's helpful hints made it a perfect fit when Alexa and Lisa decided to raise some money for the Celiac Disease Foundation and Team Gluten Free.
"Celiac Disease Foundation is kind of it for gluten free and Celiacs," Lisa said. "Their purpose is to raise awareness. That's the big problem with Celiacs, there's so many people who don't know about it. Team Gluten Free is something they came up with. You can participate in any event anywhere in the country as a runner, or any kind of competition, and raise money on your own that would go to Team Gluten Free. All Team Gluten Free money goes to sending teens to camp over the summer."
The camp is strictly for kids with Celiac disease. It is offered in six locations around the country and gives kids an escape for about a week during the summer, where everything served is gluten free. Alexa has never attended the camp, because of sports during the summer, but she is looking forward to attending next year. Until then, she would like to help others get there.
"I just want to help and to give back," Alexa said. "I just want to help people, I guess."
The mother-daughter team just wants to do some good for others going through the same thing.
"When Lisa called me about her daughter Alexa she spent a lot of time discussing Celiac disease and how it changed their life," said Scott Timmons, district manager of four Jamba Juice locations in the Valley. "I also thought it was special that she was raising money to send other people to camp and to create awareness. Lisa and Alexa's life has changed recently and they are still new to dealing with all the changes. So far, she has adapted pretty well and I got that from just spending a few minutes with her. Jamba will do all we can to assist and help."
Jamba Juice at 4302 E. Ray Road will be selling fundraiser cards to help Alexa raise money for kids with Celiac disease. The cards will be sold for $10 and contain 10 buy-one-get-one-free coupons to be used at 22 locations Valleywide. Lisa is also selling the cards and can be reached at (480) 205-3046.
"Looking back now, we're so glad that we know about it and know how to keep her healthy that we want to raise awareness for other people," Lisa said. "There's a learning curve of ‘OK you need to be gluten free, but what is gluten?' We're just trying to help with that whole process for others."
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