Denis BunningRaising Her Family and Food Allergy Awareness

Denise Bunning, M.S.Ed. '89, is this year's NIU Alumni Achievement in Public Service Award winner.

Denise Bunning has demonstrated outstanding achievements in promoting food allergy awareness and research on local, state and national levels, including co-founding a not-for-profit support organization for families who are affected by life-threatening food allergies.

It is because of these achievements that the NIU Alumni Association has chosen Bunning, M.S.Ed. ’89, for the 2019 Alumni Award for Outstanding Alumni Achievement in Public Service.

Bunning’s advocacy for food allergy awareness began when her two sons were diagnosed with multiple life-threatening food allergies.  In 1997, Bunning founded the support group organization MOCHA, or Mothers of Children Having Allergies, with a friend whose children also suffered from life-threatening allergies.

Their mission was to create an organization to help connect and educate others. 

“Many people do not understand that food allergies can be life-threatening,” Bunning said. “Thirty-two million Americans have food allergies. That is one in 13 children - effectively two in every classroom. It’s not just a peanut problem; there are more people allergic to milk and egg combined than peanut. Our kids were allergic to milk, egg, beef and fish among others. It’s hard to believe a small amount of milk could kill someone.  At MOCHA, we believe that it’s our job as parents to give our children the education, encouragement, experience and enthusiasm to get out into the world and safely live their lives to the fullest.”

In addition to her work with MOCHA, Bunning co-authored the book “The Food Allergy Experience” with Dr. Ruchi Gupta and serves on the Board of Governors for Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), the Founders’ Board of Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, and the Women’s Board of Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital.

Bunning recalled how her time as a graduate student at NIU developed her ability to communicate with and teach students from all walks of life.  “Learning and working with students and adults with all types of abilities in my graduate studies at NIU helped me better understand that I could be more impactful by focusing on what people can do, as opposed to what they cannot.  Those skills and my experience as an educator have been fundamental in my work as an advocate for food allergy awareness and education.”

Bunning also remembers the important role that NIU’s faculty played in her education. 

“In 1988, after completing my undergraduate degree in early childhood/special education from Boston College, I applied to NIU’s graduate program and Dr. Raymond J. Dembinski offered me a graduate traineeship on the Severe Profound/Autism Personnel Preparation Grant,” Bunning said. “This scholarship was
transformational for me.  Dr. Dembinski was a supportive advisor who always believed in me.”

While attending NIU, Bunning lived off campus in a studio apartment at 1400 West Lincoln Highway. 

“When I wasn’t teaching as a graduate assistant at Clinton Rosette Middle School or at DeKalb High School, you could find me at Northern Illinois Academy of Gymnastics coaching pre-elite gymnasts, enjoying myself at the Crystal Pistol, or driving on I-88 to visit my then boyfriend, who has now been by husband for almost 30 years, in Glen Ellyn,” she said.

In offering advice to current students, Bunning stated, “I think my best advice to current students is the same advice I have always given my children – simply
‘persevere.’ Just because something is extremely difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth every ounce of your mind, body and spirit. I’ve always been an optimistic person and I choose to make lemonade out of lemons. Sometimes you have to go through difficult situations and rise above to succeed.”

When asked about her legacy, Bunning quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To laugh often, to win the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch…to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

“I feel very blessed to have married my best friend, to have two amazing sons, and to have been able to give back educationally and philanthropically to
educational institutions, the healthcare field, and hopefully to help the world understand more about the disease of food allergies,” Bunning said.

The 2019 Alumni Awards Luncheon photo album