While many are struggling to find the positive from months of isolating, Mariken O’Donnell found her silver lining right at the start. The Mum of two says that lockdown has had unexpected benefits for her family. “My son has severe allergies,” she says. “He was really sick at the beginning of the year and then COVID hit and he’s been really healthy!”
On top of juggling family priorities, her own business and volunteering on the NZBWN board, Mariken has become a keen advocate for allergy awareness in recent years. She volunteers with UK-based charities, Anaphylaxis Campaign and Allergy UK. “My objective in being a mum and doing all this is to raise awareness that it really is life-threatening,” says Mariken.
“People tend to think that if you’ve got anti-histamines or even an epi-pen that it’ll just be fine, but that’s just not true,” she says. “If someone says “I’ve got a nut allergy” then we need to go “This is serious. Let me protect you”.”
Mariken has also started a social media page, Nutfree Adventures, to show the community that allergies don’t have to stop you from living a life that you love. “As long as you’re vigilant and prepared, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t lead a full, adventurous life.”
When Mariken first started researching for information about living with anaphylaxis, she struggled to find much on the subject and found it very isolating. “If you haven’t gone through it, it’s hard to know so it can be quite a lonely journey,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone else to feel that, so I’m trying to support other families through it.”
Together with husband, Mark, she’s writing two books to educate the community about allergies. The first, Simon the Monkey, is a children’s book about a little character who develops nut allergies. The story will cover when he finds out, gets diagnosed and when he has to carry his pens.
“There was only one book when we started this with our son and it’s our go-to every time he starts a new school year,” she says. “We thought there should be more, something that’s fun, something that’s not scary that just introduces it in a nice way.”
While that’s being illustrated, Mariken is already onto her next project. She’s currently writing a book for parents that are navigating their journeys of adapting to anaphylaxis. “My advice would be not to think too far ahead,” she says. “If you ever do, you can lose yourself a bit and end up overwhelmed. It’s all about taking it one step at a time.”
It’s somewhat surprising advice from a woman whose work-life revolves largely around the future. Mariken runs her own company, Hummingbird Recruitment & Consulting, and specialises in talent acquisition and development solutions within the renewable energy and green technology industry.
Having worked across a variety of sectors before establishing Hummingbird, this is an industry that she feels passionate about. “It really resonates because we’re doing something very positive,” she says. “We’re not just building a building for profit, we’re doing something really good.”
“Plus the type of people it attracts, being such a new industry, are quite entrepreneurial. They’re go-getters, interesting people who are willing to give things a go.”
In all of her roles, it’s been those personal connections that mean the most to Mariken. “My favourite part of my job is meeting people and hearing people’s stories,” she says. “It’s incredible to see all these different nationalities and different backgrounds but they all fit so well. Seeing them go on and do amazing things is really exciting for me.”
It’s precisely this element that led her to join the NZBWN board earlier this year as our inaugural Volunteer Engagement Director. “I absolutely love it. I’ve got to meet all the volunteers now and I get such a buzz,” she says. “Everyone’s got such a different story, why they’re here and their backgrounds and what they want to get out of it. It’s really cool!”