Dairy ambassador tells public about joy of dairy despite lactose intolerance
By JILLIAN BEAUDRY
The Daily World
ELMA, Wash.(AP) -- She has to have worked on a dairy farm or shown dairy cows for FFA or 4-H. She must be single. She must be a legal resident of Washington. She must have a neat, professional appearance without any tattoos or piercings.
These are all the requirements of being a Washington State Dairy Ambassador. As strict as some of these requirements are, one requirement that might seem logical is missing -- namely, that she be able to consume dairy products.
Laurel Gordon, 18, a senior at Elma High School, was Grays Harbor County's Dairy Ambassador for 2010-11 and is a contestant for the state dairy ambassador title in this month's competition. She is also a lactose intolerant dairy princess.
When people find out that Gordon has been promoting dairy products all over the county and the state for the past year, but can't actually consume dairy without special pills, they often laugh, she said.
"They think it's pretty funny," Gordon said. "I'm kind of a joke around my friends."
About two years ago, Gordon developed lactose intolerance, meaning her body is unable to digest milk and some milk products.
Gordon lives on her parents' dairy farm in Elma that has been in the Gordon family for 150 years. Her parents, Jay and Susan Gordon, took over the farm about 25 years ago. About 5 years ago, the dairy switched to all organic, growing its own organic feed and treating the cows without hormones or antibiotics. The farm sells its milk to Organic Valley, the largest organic milk co-op in the country, according to the company's website.
"There's no way I could live here and not have some dairy," Gordon said.
She has been working on dealing with her new lifestyle. She can eat hard cheeses and yogurt because those foods have very little lactose in them. She drinks soy and lactose-free milk.
She takes acidophilus pills to compensate. "I see a lot of those around on shelves," her father, Jay Gordon, said. "She's real active. I see her heading out the door with a big bottle of yogurt and toast."
The hardest food to give up has been whipped cream, she said. She recently tried some rice-based "whipped cream" and said it was a poor substitution for the real thing.
And while Gordon has been in Grays Harbor County and in Western Washington handing out milk samples and telling elementary school kids to drink their milk even though she can't, she said she's not alone. Gordon said she knows of at least one other dairy ambassador in Washington who is also lactose intolerant.
"I'm hoping they would never rule us out (as dairy ambassadors)," she said.
Jay Gordon, who is also executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, said Laurel didn't seem to have any awkwardness about adjusting to her changing diet. "Teenage daughters don't fill their dad in on that."
She is one of four dairy ambassadors in her immediate family. All three of her older sisters also held the title.
Caitlin, 23, recently graduated from Washington State University as a communications major. Leah, 21, is still attending WSU and is studying Spanish and animal science. Hannah, 19, is at Oregon State University studying early childhood development.
"I'm proud of all of 'em," Jay Gordon said.
"They each chose this on their own. It wasn't something expected," their mom, Susan Gordon, said.
The position helped her daughters learn how to represent the dairy industry and it was beneficial to spread the word about how milk gets from the farm to the carton in your fridge and the lifestyle of dairy farmers, she said.
Last year, Gordon was the only applicant to be the county's ambassador. To apply, she filled out an application and wrote an essay. She said she would have liked to have some competition and an alternate who could have traveled with her.
Grays Harbor County ambassadors keep busy. They attend a trade show at the SouthShore Mall in Aberdeen and quiz the public on milk, attend local health fairs, go on school tours, take kindergartners on a tour of Bill Goeres' dairy farm in Elma, participate in parades and attend Washington Interscholastic Activities Association events.
Gordon's sisters gave her advice before she was coronated about a year ago. Caitlin told her to just smile, be happy and enjoy the time because she wouldn't be a dairy ambassador forever.
Gordon said she gets mixed responses from the people she interacts with while wearing her crown and sash. On a school tour of Goeres' farm this year, the kindergartners loved her. One of the students called her "Mrs. Princess."
"They're super happy to see somebody in something sparkly," she said.
The teenagers she interacts with give her weird looks at first, she said. Then, when they learn why she's wearing the tiara, they think it's cool, she said.
"(This experience) really taught me how to step outside of my comfort zone," she said.
As time passed during her ambassadorship, Gordon began to research foods and substitutions for those who are lactose intolerant, and has been spreading the word that not all dairy is harmful to those who cannot digest lactose.
Gordon coronated the county's new ambassador, Elma High School student Jessica Sherman, in May. But, she's not quite done yet. She is competing for the state ambassador title in June. If she wins, she gets $7,000 in scholarship money and will travel around the state for the year.
If Gordon wins, it would be a big change for her. She has set her career track toward journalism and writing.
"That's been consistent for the past five years or so. She's taking courses at Grays Harbor Community College and likely will go there next year," Jay Gordon said. "She's shopping around for colleges, and she has several scholarship opportunities."
"Gosh, that would change everything," she said. "(Being state ambassador) is like a full-time job."
She's already attended seminars on how to sit, stand, dress, speak and deal with the press to prepare for state. The three-day competition is intense, with an interview, speeches and judges who will gauge how well she can reach out to random people and tell them about the dairy industry. She's competing against about a dozen girls, she said.
Gordon plans to include information on how she can still enjoy some dairy.
As this chapter of her ambassadorship for the county closes, another may be just beginning if she wins the state ambassador title.
"It's still kind of unreal that it's over," Gordon said. "But I still have state to look forward to. As long as I have a good time, there will be no regrets for me."
Capital Press reporter Steve Brown contributed to this article.