Bathrooms and transgender students have been a national hot topic this year. But one South Florida student is hoping to create awareness and open dialogue about a different bathroom situation affecting millions of people every year, including young school students.
Bianca Hernandez, a senior at St. Brendan High School, founded the “GO” Free program to educate school administrators and teachers about inflammatory bowel disease (commonly referred to as IBD) and get them to provide private bathrooms for students affected.
“They call inflammatory bowel diseases invisible because nobody talks about them,” Bianca said. “My goal is to make this invisible disease, visible.”
Inflammatory bowel diseases are characterized by chronic inflammation in the lining of the digestive system. The two main types are Crohn’s disease, which can affect any part of the digestive tract and ulcerative colitis, which targets the colon. Common symptoms include frequent diarrhea, bloody stools, abdominal pain and cramping, and inability to control bowel movements. In severe cases, parts of the small intestine or entire colon are removed.
The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) estimates approximately 1.6 million Americans have inflammatory bowel disease.
Bianca, a popular student who plays softball and volleyball and was involved in student government and the drama club, was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis last summer, just a week before school started. At the time she was battling a major disease flare-up and felt completely out of control.
“I would get up in the middle of class and I didn’t even have time to explain to the teacher, I would just leave to the bathroom,” Bianca said. “I was so physically tired all the time I would fall asleep in class.”
Many students with inflammatory bowel disease choose to not attend school during a flare-up.
“Almost 50 percent of IBD students choose to not attend school while experiencing flare-ups due to the embarrassment of having to use the public restroom while not being able to have any control when you gotta go,” Bianca said. “It can be incredibly embarrassing and uncomfortable especially when you are surrounded by friends who are not familiar with your disease.”
Ivette Alvarez, director of counseling at St. Brendan, approached the 17-year-old when she noticed her significant weight loss. She gave her a pass to use the private faculty bathroom and wrote e-mails to her teachers explaining her condition. That inspired Bianca to start the “GO” Free program.
“It’s a really, really big deal to have a private bathroom when you have an IBD,” Bianca said. “It’s like this safe little bubble.”
Now, Bianca goes to different schools meeting with administrators to pitch her program. She gives them a folder that includes facts and figures from CCFA and “GO” Free request forms that students complete and have their gastroenterologists sign.
She has also met with professionals at counseling centers who work with children and young adults to enhance their knowledge of these conditions and provide resources, including diets that help control the symptoms.
“Since she started the program, some students with irritable bowel syndrome have come forward,” Alvarez said. “The idea is to display the purple arrow [logo] at the schools and let students know what it means and that this is a “GO” Free school.”
This month, the program’s official website went live and Bianca has been receiving calls from businesses and organizations that want to partner up. Her ultimate goal is to reach educators and students all over the country.
Until then, she continues to tackle the challenges of living with an inflammatory bowel disease with charisma, a positive attitude and even a bit of humor in the form of “poo” emojis on social media.
“She’s a young voice in the community and students can relate to her,” said Cristina Olaechea, a licensed school psychologist at the Coral Gables Counseling Center. “She delivers a very hopeful message. As a psychologist, I feel that’s the most beautiful part of what she’s doing.”
For more information, visit www.gofreeprogram.org.