Merrill Debbs on Honoring Oakley and the Meaning of Red Sneakers Day

in Food Allergy News, Parenting & School
Published: May 11, 2020
The Debbs Family

On May 20, wearing red sneakers is more than just a fashion statement – it’s a way of spreading food allergy awareness.

This year marks the third annual International Red Sneakers Day created by Red Sneakers for Oakley (RSFO). The non-profit organization was created in memory of Oakley Debbs who died at the age of 11 in 2016 from a severe anaphylactic reaction. 

In an interview with Allergic Living, Merrill Debbs, Oakley’s mother and one of RSFO’s founders, explains the nonprofits’s two main goals. “The organization’s purpose is to help people with food allergies be able to navigate everyday life. Plus, it’s also to help families who do not have food allergies understand the severity of food allergies,” she says.

Red Sneakers Day Goes Global

On International Red Sneakers Day, RSFO encourages people all over the world to don red footwear or clothing and post photos on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. The idea is to raise awareness about food allergies and anaphylaxis – and it’s an eye-catching concept that has taken off. 

The first International Red Sneakers Day in 2018 had more than 2.5 million social media impressions from people around the world. People shared and reshared photos, using the hashtags #LivlikeOaks and #InternationalRedSneakersDay. Then for 2019, Merrill says the impressions climbed to 3.6 million. 

For 2020, RSFO hopes to break the 4 million impressions mark. “We just want to keep the momentum going,” says Merrill. 

RSFO was formed mere days after Oakley Debbs, who had asthma and a nut allergy, suffered fatal anaphylaxis. The boy had eaten a piece of cake later found to contain walnut extract. The Debbs family has since shared Oakley’s story, and become prominent advocates for the importance of those with severe allergies carrying two auto-injectors.

Equally, they stress the importance of administering epinephrine promptly in the event of anaphylaxis. According to numerous testimonials, their work is saving lives. 

Red Sneakers & Saving Lives

For instance, two weeks after launching RSFO, Merrill received an email from a Canadian father. He had read about Oakley’s passing online and, because of that, when his own 11-year-old son experienced anaphylaxis, the father knew what to do. He immediately administered epinephrine and called 911.

At the hospital, doctors informed the man that the prompt dose of epinephrine likely saved his son’s life. 

This email was the first of many messages the Debbs family has received over the years. A woman in Romania shared how she remembered Oakley’s story in the knick of time – and administered epinephrine to her son. She then grabbed their second auto-injector and got him to the hospital.

Another mom posted on the organization’s Facebook page, which has 16,000 followers, saying she used to “look for any excuse not to give epi.” But that behavior changed because of Red Sneakers for Oakley. Just recently, a Florida father again credited Oakley as the key reason his son was given epinephrine.

Educating in the Pandemic

Messages such as these have been sent to the Debbs family from across the U.S., Canada, and as far away as Australia and Argentina. When asked how many of these stories they’ve heard over the years, Merrill’s answer is: “too many.”

She means that too many people were lacking information on the life-saving food allergy protocols, prior to hearing about Oakley’s story. That’s why RSFO conducts educational programs and community outreach. 

Beyond May 20th’s International Red Sneakers Day, Merrill speaks about food allergies in schools. She finds the “Spell It Out” food allergy PSA, which recently won a New York Emmy Award, a helpful educational tool. Plus, she fields questions from students like: Can I touch my friend after I’ve eaten peanut butter? Does a food allergy go away? Questions which, to Merrill, are a sign that the students are engaged and learning.

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, RSFO isn’t able to provide these sessions in the schools. There also won’t be any of their usual “red sneaker” soccer tournaments and fundraisers in Quogue, New York, and the Debbs family’s home town of Palm Beach, Florida. 

The pandemic changed RSFO’s 2020 plans “quite a bit,” says Merrill, but they are focusing on disseminating information as best they can. 

Red Sneakers in Spanish, French

This year, for the first time, RSFO is providing food allergy flyers in Spanish and French as well as English on International Red Sneakers Day. In keeping with the “international” aim of the day, RSFO plans to translate their literature into more languages in the future. 

Wearing masks and gloves, the RSFO team also put together packages of the printed info sheets and a “red sneakers” rubber bracelet. Hundreds of these packages are being sent out with orders from the organization’s partners, such nut-free bakeries and local grocery stores across the U.S., encouraging customers to participate in International Red Sneakers Day. 

As RSFO works to increase the reach of its message on May 20, Oakley is never far from the Debbs’ minds. Oakley was a gifted athlete, who loved soccer, frequently won mini marathons and aspired to one day be a quarterback. His jersey number was No. 20, which is why International Red Sneakers Day is held on May 20. 

For the Debbs family, red sneakers are not just worn on May 20, they are the regular footwear in their household. Oakley’s twin sister Olivia wore custom red shoes with “Oak” and “Ley” printed across the top until she completely outgrew them. Robert Debbs, Oakley’s father, now exclusively wears red footwear, ranging from red flip-flops to red leather dress shoes. Merrill also frequently wears her red suede Pumas, Oakley’s favorite brand. 

In that way, International Red Sneakers Day is about more than food allergy awareness and anaphylaxis. For the Debbs family, Merrill says, “It helps keep Oakley alive.” 

On May 20,
Show Your Red! 

Use hashtags #redsneakersforoakley #livlikeoaks #redsneakers. Remember to tag and follow in social media:

Twitter: @oakley_red 
Instagram: @RedSneakersforOakley
Facebook: Red Sneakers for Oakley  
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