You might not realize that RVing with a special needs family member is one of the ideal scenarios to venture out on extended family vacations and simple weekend getaways. We once thought that our special needs would hold us back from adventuring and exploring until the RV showed us a new world of possibilities.
RVing with Special Needs Family Members
The Braga family shares their experience RVing with a special needs family member. Here are some helpful tips and insights for families traveling with a handicap child.
RVing provides a unique opportunity for families with special needs because you can adapt your RV to fit the requirements you are living with. Then once you are dialed in, you can head out and adventure, bringing all your necessities with you.
We bought our first RV 10 years ago as a way for us to bring our food with us on our first family vacation. Unfortunately, our youngest daughter at the time was diagnosed with severe food allergies. The slightest cross-contamination of her allergens could prove fatal for her, so dining out at any restaurant or getting takeout was simply out of the question. She also had severe contact allergens and staying in a place with different laundered linens or carpet fibers would set her off asthmatically. As you can see, we knew we needed a way to adventure and help show her that life moves onward and embrace her uniqueness.
Research Ahead of Time
Now, if you are taking an extended trip, there will be more challenges ahead of you than when you escape for the long weekend.
Whatever your special needs requirements are, you must consider all aspects of your safety and health.
As one of our special requirements, we often research the proximity to an area hospital before committing to a campground or RV resort.
As impressive as it would be to be hours from civilization, our early years of managing our daughter's food allergies were full of unknowns. So naturally, we always kept our options for medical help within arm’s reach. But, of course, each particular circumstance is unique.
Control of Your Environment
Extended trips always present challenges for us regarding bringing our food stockpiles, as grocery stores don't always carry safe brands that are proven not to have allergens. For others traveling with different needs, I think you would also need to plan forward for your specific needs. I know we also stock up on EpiPens and inhalers and ensure that we have more than enough for our trips out and back. Across the US, grocery and drug stores vary according to what they carry and stock.
Something that we hadn't considered at first was our daughter's allergic reaction to other people's spaces and places. In an RV, the area is small, and food allergens seem more concentrated than in a house. We believe it has to do with all the fabrics that often come in an RV and less ventilation than in a house. Still, we've since learned that it is easily managed by hosting the gatherings and inviting everyone over to our camper for fire pits and gatherings.
Once we saw the possibilities of traveling with our kitchen, our linens, and on our timeline, we were hooked. Realizing that this type of travel allowed us to meet our daughter's needs while still enjoying time as a family was a game changer. We were so committed we opted for a brand-new RV for even more extended trips.
Create a Consistently Safe Space
In hindsight, the reason we bought our rear bunk house fifth wheel falls perfectly in line with the needs we find ourselves in today.
Initially, we wanted the rear bunkhouse space as a safe zone the girls could retreat to and refresh. A room all their own that they could decorate and personalize. Now we are grateful for the floor space and separate entrance so that when hosting camping friends over, they can enjoy an inside open space that is also allergen free and safe for all. Your RV can provide the consistency and structure some people need to maintain a healthy mindset. Having their room, bunk, bathroom, etc., can be a refreshing reset, consistency, and a sense of calm for all emotional needs. Just as our girls have their room, their door separates them from the middle of the RV, and our bedroom door provides yet another separation of space for everyone to enjoy some solitude as needed.
We spend a lot of thought and energy on the personal space part of RVing because that is the part that recharges and resets. If you are traveling for the winter or just for several months, it is easy to fall into a bit of a spiral if you don't have something to lean on and count on. In addition, we would be completely stressed if we had to source safe food options at every turn.
If every mealtime required us to research what food we could eat, what foods were made in safe facilities, and what facilities had safe handling practices… we would have tremendous anxiety driving out of town. However, since the RV provides us with all known variables, we can rest easy knowing nothing related to food preparations in the camper will cause harm or injury to us.
We have something we can count on.
Something to trust. And RV's give us that freedom to push external boundaries and limits while returning to consistency and safety.
The single most significant surprise of RVing has been the fantastic community. We initially imagined a challenging scenario of meeting people willing to hang out with us and tolerate our unique needs. However, all those fears were shattered when the absolute opposite became the norm. We have met hundreds of families and couples that can't wait to create an environment of inclusion where our daughter can safely engage and play without fear of anaphylaxis. Don't get us wrong… we don't let our guard down all that much, but the sheer effort that SO many people put in just blows us away. The more unique the scenario, the more accepted it is.
How do we work through get-togethers and activities? I'll be honest they often come with a bit of anxiety, but a little stress is healthy. We often take the lead and help everyone decide on non-food-related events. We teach about food allergies when we can and offer insightful awareness of places where allergens can live. We pre-plan our meals to coincide with the community meal but prepare without her allergens. We make available hand wipes for everyone to clean up after eating before playtime resumes.
RVing has given us the tremendous gift of community and friendships with other like-minded people. There is constantly a campfire conversation that I hear again and again, which goes like this; I've been at my house for years, and I have only met my neighbor once or twice. I couldn't imagine grabbing my lawn chair and walking up to their house to sit with them and chat about life and times. But in the RV world, that is happening every single night.
We met a fantastic couple one year that insisted on teaching and playing chess with our daughter, but since she couldn't be inside their RV for too long without reacting, they gladly volunteered to bring everything to our RV for the lessons. Everyone traveling has at least one thing in common… adventure. With that common bond, everything is equal. Of course, some RVs are more significant than others, some more desirable than others, but the adventurer is the same.
Since we homeschool, we can also see how homeschooling and RVing go hand in hand. So many people with special needs family members, understand the challenges of education and personal attention. Remote learning and online options allow us to keep our daughters' education on track and thrive. The RV will enable them to have a routine they can stick to and do from wherever we happen to be traveling.
Since our travel plans are always set in advance, we deliberately supplement their syllabus with real-world experience by visiting monuments, national parks, and historical parks. This tangible first-hand experience connects with our girls and helps them sort through all that they are reading and learning. Before arriving at a significant monument or museum, we download audiobooks to listen to as a family to learn about the important historical figures and seek out Wikipedia for some quick facts. There is also a great app we use by HearHere, which has tons of stories about places near you etc. It's like a self-guided tour of the US on audio.
For us, food sourcing is our single greatest travel challenge. Our youngest daughter used to be allergic to the top eight allergens but is only anaphylactic to dairy, eggs, and peanuts. Although we are grateful the other top five allergens have been cleared, finding safe foods that weren't processed in a facility with one of those three things is much more complicated than you would imagine. Beyond finding clean brands to purchase, regional grocery stores source food differently in different parts of the country. The ingredients vary based on what manufacturing plant they were produced in.
Our workaround for food sourcing is stockpiling whatever food we can fit in storage, whether frozen or dry goods and as you can imagine in an RV, that takes some creativity.
For more info about the Bragas, you can follow them online at www.our1chance.com or on any social media channel @our1chanceisioned yourself as the parent who would have to stay home while everyone else went on without you. We are here to tell you that it is not only possible, but RVing may be one of the best things you can do for your family.
We are Jerome, Jen, Leighton, Shayla, (and our dog Chance). You might know us on social channels as @Our1Chance, a name we thought would become our mission statement for living our best life.