Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Giving advocacy a good name

Nona Narvaez likes going to bat for tough causes

Nona Narvaez, a member of Saint Anthony Park Lu-theran Church (ELCA), was instrumental in achieving 2002 legislation mandating that all Minnesota ambulances carry epinephrine for sufferers of severe allergies and a subsequent law that insures children’s access to epinephrine or other necessary medications during school hours.

Narvaez’s son Max, 7, is one of a growing number of youngsters with severe food allergies. Reaction to a trigger food or substance can devolve into life-threatening anaphylaxis in minutes or less. Epinephrine acts as an antidote to chemicals re-leased in the body during an allergic reaction.

In 2001 Narvaez and her husband, Jeffrey Schaefer, founded a nonprofit organization, the Anaphylaxis and Food Allergy Association of Minnesota (AFAA). “Epine-phrine opponents made the assumption that AFAA members were parents without political experience, that we’d become discouraged and give up,” Narvaez says, but the group persisted, winning its fight for the legislation despite sometimes rough opposition.

Who would oppose such vital, lifesaving provisions? Narvaez and her group had a protracted face-off with lobbyists for ambulance owners and teachers’ unions. Lobbyists argued that ambulance owners would have to apply for a variance to carry medications, a burden for small ambulances. The education lobby resisted placing any new mandate onto the plate of already overworked teachers.

“Lobbyists thought I was just a stay-at-home mom,” Narvaez says. In fact, she holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Humphrey Institute and was a research analyst for the Minnesota House of Rep-representatives DFL caucus in 1994-95. Before that she was a foreign affairs analyst for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Narvaez stresses, however, that lengthy training is not necessary in public policy advocacy. She encourages members of St. Anthony Park Church and other metro area Lutherans to become involved in political action. “I’ve taken people to the capitol to talk with their legislators, explaining ‘It’s just a conversation. They want to hear your story.’ Or, I tell them to pick up their phone and have the conversation.”
She describes another recent success in assisting people living with food allergies. “AFAA members met with some of the Minnesota congressional delegation, and two became co-authors of the most important federal legislation [in this field]. We networked with people all over the country to accomplish passage, and new, improved labeling on food products is beginning in 2006.”

Equal access to public health is the overarching theme of Narvaez’s political activism, including her conviction that Minnesota’s permissive 2003 gun law should be repealed. “Our legislators keep hearing from the gun lobby, but not from those of us who want guns off the street. Call your legislator,” she says. “It takes one minute to be an activist.”

Another top priority for Narvaez is reclaiming access for Palestinian patients seeking health care at Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, a facility supported by Lutheran World Federation. [See August 2006 Metro Lutheran, page 3, and previous related articles.] “It’s a crisis,” she says. “People should call or e-mail the White House or their congressional representatives in Washington. Just say, ‘Please expedite humanitarian aid to Augusta Victoria and the other hospitals that accept Palestinians as patients.’”
Narvaez’s concern for medical issues stems from her own experience in addition to that of her son Max. (Narvaez and her husband have a second son, Robby, 3.) She has survived a battle with cancer but nearly lost her life to a postoperative infection which made her so ill that she was unable to care for her sons for months and needed constant medical attention.

That’s when she heard about Augusta Victoria Hospital. “Sick people not having access to a hospital? That situation really gripped me,” she says. “It’s essential for us as organizers to help the poor, the ill, the homeless and others who are powerless.”

Lessons from the parables of Jesus have strengthened Narvaez’s faith and inspired her activism. “As a child I heard, ‘Do not hide your talents.’ I didn’t know then that talents were coins, but I got the message: we’re called to act when and where our skills apply.” She also cites the story of the widow who gave away the only money she had.
When the next state legislative session begins in 2007, Narvaez plans to take on insurance companies that don’t cover formulas and liquid diets for infants and other individuals with allergies to the amino acids in milk, both soy and cow’s milk. “It costs up to $10,000 a year, and without it babies are dying. It’s heartbreaking. The issue is getting insurance companies to pay.”