Kenlyn Mirbach, 17, can relate to being sick with an upset stomach.
The lactose-intolerant Los Altos Hills teen has often suffered such uncomfortable symptoms as a result of her condition, which causes difficulty digesting the sugar in dairy products like milk and cheese. She takes lactase pills, which contain enzymes that aid in the digestion of dairy products.
Now she wants to help others affected by the condition who can’t afford the medication by providing lactase pills to the homeless.
“If I didn’t have the means to go to the doctor, get the pills and eat less lactose, I would still be getting sick every time,” said Mirbach of how something as simple as a 20-cent pill relieves her discomfort and reduces stress in her life.
With help from her parents and her rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Mirbach laid the groundwork for the Lactase Project, an effort to educate and provide resources on lactose intolerance to those living in local shelters. Armed with money from her bat mitzvah fund and a $200 loan from her parents, she underwrote the initial costs of the project.
“At first a lot of the programs would say this isn’t a problem,” said Mirbach of one of her earliest hurdles – general apathy from shelters and nonprofit agencies. “It’s very obvious that at least one person served during a three-month stay will be lactose intolerant.”
According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, as many as 40 million Americans experience lactose intolerance. The clearinghouse also estimates that up to 90 percent of Asian Americans and 75 percent of African Americans, Jews, Mexicans and Native Americans are resistant to dairy products.
Mirbach bolstered her knowledge of lactose intolerance and organized her program to appeal to nonprofit organizations with limited staff and financial resources.
Her outreach efforts paid off when the Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto incorporated her project into its work at the end of 2012. To date, approximately 10 clients have received pills, and the reaction to the project has been positive.
“It’s important to know about (lactose intolerance) and learn about it,” Mirbach said. “Even if you don’t get the pills or stop taking the pills, it’s important information to have about yourself, even if you leave the shelter.”
Reflecting on her growth through her work with the Lactase Project, Mirbach said she plans to recruit likeminded teens to expand her organization.
“I realize that as one girl, I can’t go around the country to homeless shelters and say, ‘Do this,’” she said. “I really think this program could be helpful all over the nation and the world. … I know teenagers who want to help but don’t know what to do.”
For more information, visit lactaseproject.org.