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Illinois high school students will soon learn how to use EpiPens. It's thanks to a new law led by a high schooler.

A recent northern Illinois high school grad created and helped write a bill that just became state law.

Darby Elo was working on a group project with her friends about severe allergies for her Peace & Conflict Studies class at Naperville Central High School.

Several of Elo’s friends in that group had severe allergies themselves. Some even carried epinephrine auto-injectors or EpiPens. In fact, her friend Ella decided it was time to teach her how to use it in case they had an allergic reaction.

“I remember thinking it would be so cool if I had already learned about this, because it's such a common thing,” she said. “But when we think about it, especially in an emergency situation, I don't know how many high school students or really anybody would feel comfortable using an EpiPen.”

Allergies are very common. Over 50 million Americans suffer from either seasonal, eczema, or food allergies -- nearly 1 in 3 adults. More than 3 million people carry EpiPens.

For the project, Elo’s group researched how their school and schools across the country teach students about allergies & keep school buildings allergen safe.

“I found that Illinois didn't have any type of training for students, or really had that kind of conversation [about allergies],” she said.

Elo says that high school health classes already show students how to do CPR and the Heimlich maneuver -- so why not EpiPens too? And what if high school health classes talked about the dangers of allergies?

“When we talk about allergies, I think everybody kind of brushes past them," said Elo. "And I'm not gonna lie, I used to be that same kind of person. But then I met a bunch of people who did have severe allergies. And I realized how important it was for them to have people in their life who knew about them and could help them if needed. And I think just opening that conversation, especially in schools, is super important.”

She’d done the research already and she wanted to follow-up on the project during her senior year -- maybe even craft a bill. Luckily, the teacher of her Peace & Conflict Studies class, Seth Brady, has empowered students to lead legislation before. One of his former students helped pass the state’s media literacy law back in 2021.

So, Elo reached out to her state senator, Janet Yang Rohr.

“I think that was definitely the most daunting aspect of this process,” said Elo.

Thankfully, Yang Rohr’s team loved the idea and agreed to meet. It helped that Yang Rohr’s chief of staff, Donna Wandke, is also a member of the Naperville District 203 school board.

“She basically walked me through the entire process where I ended up calling different committees, different House members, just trying to get them to sign on to this bill and I helped to draft the original language,” said Elo.

Senator Yang Rohr filed the bill back in February. It advanced quickly through committee, where Elo was called to testify.

“It was a little nerve racking. I'm not gonna lie,” she said. “It was my first time doing anything like that. But I got to see some of the other bills in that committee session. And I saw some of the questions the other people were getting, and I think that's what made me a little bit nervous, but it ended up going very smoothly.”

And where a lot of legislation languishes in committee or stalls out over multiple sessions, that didn’t happen with the allergy education bill. Just a few months after its first reading on the House floor the bill passed both chambers en route to the governor’s desk.

And the lawmaking process had opened other doors for Elo already. She’s now an intern for Senator Yang Rohr.

“The moment I found out it had passed both chambers, I actually got to be with Donna Wandke, and the rest of the intern team. And it was just really exciting, because everybody was so excited for me,” she said. “And then I texted my mom and it was just a nice moment.”

The plan was signed into law on June 30th. So, starting in the 2024-25 school year, all Illinois high school health classes will include instruction on allergies, recognizing symptoms and preventing exposure -- as well as how to safely administer emergency epinephrine.

Elo says the experience has taught her a lot.

“You shouldn't be afraid of asking for small things,” she said. “I honestly think that's also really good advice for students who are trying something similar right now or doing their own projects.”

Allergies are a really big thing for the people who suffer from them. Elo’s happy that her work will not only call attention to those issues across the state but empower other students to step up and help someone in an emergency.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.