For the past three years, May 20 has been circled in red on the Debbs’ family calendar. The date marks International Red Sneakers Day, an annual event created by Robert and Merrill Debbs dedicated to spreading food allergy education. They do so in memory of their son Oakley, who tragically died of anaphylaxis at only 11 years of age.
This year, for the first time ever, May 20 will not only be promoted by the Debbs’ Red Sneakers for Oakley (RSFO) organization, it will also have status on the National Day Calendar. When Merrill received the news, she broke down in tears.
“It made it official,” says Merrill on the phone from her home in Palm Beach, Florida. “It made it real that National Red Sneakers Day has meaning, that we are here for food allergy awareness and that is our day, May 20.”
On their day, the Debbs and RSFO encourage people around the globe to wear red sneakers and shoes, and to take photos and videos and share them on social media with the hashtags #RedSneakersForOakley, #NationalRedSneakerDay and #InternationationalRedSneakerDay. Through the visual impact, the intent is to spread lifesaving information and awareness about food allergies.
RSFO and the annual event were created following the death of Oakley Gage Debbs in 2016. Oakley, a vivacious young athlete known for his signature red sneakers, had asthma and a nut allergy. During a family Thanksgiving gathering, Oakley suffered a severe reaction after eating a cake later found to contain walnut extract.
At the time, doctors had not educated Robert and Merrill on the importance of administering an epinephrine auto-injector promptly, nor on the potential for food allergy reactions to become life-threatening. So they treated Oakley’s initial reaction with Benadryl, as they had in past. The family only learned the term “anaphylaxis” later that night in the emergency room. As they write on their website, by that point, “it was too late.”
Oakley’s Story Helping Others
The Debbs family shares Oakley’s story to educate others about food allergy and anaphylaxis throughout the year, and in particular on May 20. They chose the date because May is asthma and food allergy awareness month and 20 was Oakley’s football jersey number, now worn by his twin sister, Olivia.
Though May 20 will now be denoted as “National Red Sneakers Day” on the U.S. calendar, Merrill wants to make it clear that this remains an international event. The Debbs have received thousands of messages from people across the U.S. and Canada and as far away as Norway and New Zealand.
One family shared how, thanks to Oakley’s story, they knew to administer epinephrine when their 10-year-old daughter experienced a reaction after eating a cookie. Another parent detailed how Oakley’s story taught them to always carry two epinephrine auto-injectors.
Food allergy mom Averill Conley shared a similar story on Facebook in 2018, and last year, she joined the Debbs family for their Un-Gala, a virtual dinner benefit to raise funds for RSFO and food allergy awareness. The initiative, which raised more than $200,000, was one of several ways RSFO pivoted during the pandemic, promoting online resources and video content while in-person events and in-class presentations were on hold.
The educational video of the Un-Gala dinner demonstrates food allergy safety measures for dining out. In it, Averill Conley shares the terrifying moment when her 2-year-old son Camden, who is allergic to milk, eggs and wheat, began coughing and gagging after eating a fruit and veggie protein pouch. It turned out to contain milk.
“Thanks to Red Sneakers for Oakley, my family had an emergency plan, and we were educated on when to use the auto-injector,” Averill says in the video, shot at Buccan Palm Beach, a food allergy-friendly restaurant. “Oakley’s story saved our sweet Camden’s life.”
Stepping Up RSFO’s Impact
RSFO has grown rapidly since it was first founded in 2016, mere days after Oakley passed away.
With a following today in more than 50 countries, International Red Sneakers Day on May 20th has become a global phenomenon. RSFO now has a social media presence approaching eight million impressions, with the bulk of that arising from the viral reach of International Red Sneakers Day.
On May 20, social media users will be posting messages and photos showing off their red sneakers, shoes and even stilettos in support of food allergy awareness. Through International Red Sneakers Day, RSFO has made thousands of personal connections with food allergy families and individuals, educating on the dangers of food allergic reactions and helping them to cope with a difficult journey that can feel isolating. Red Sneakers Day has allowed RSFO to build an incredibly supportive food allergy community, raising awareness, and even saving lives.
Recently RSFO launched three educational programs with specific food allergy awareness materials. “Where Food Allergies Go Beyond the Food” and “Parties, Action, Crushes, Kissing and Trust” are both specifically for teens and “Education Engagement Initiative” is tailored for middle school students.
Merrill explains that the multi-media programs featuring presentations, workbooks and other resources were inspired by what they’re seeing among their more than 16,000 followers on Facebook, 12,000 Instagram followers and the RSFO community with regard to food allergy awareness in schools, challenges in social situations, like dating or at parties, as well as food allergy bullying. She adds that this year, RSFO plans to film another PSA, following on the success of the “Spell It Out” food allergy video, which they collaborated on with other nonprofits. That PSA won a New York Emmy Award.
May 20th On the Calendar
Looking back on the past year, Merrill says “people who are living in the pandemic have been living a food allergy person’s life,” referencing practices like proper hand-washing and sanitizing surfaces. She posits that these measures may give people a greater appreciation for the everyday experiences of food allergy families.
“Red sneakers and shoes are our reminder that food allergies are serious and that anaphylaxis is a severe reaction that can cause death,” says Merrill. “It’s [also] a memorial to my son Oakley, one of my greatest loves.”
When Merrill dons her red sneakers on May 20, whether it’s her go-to suede Pumas or the specialty slides that spell out “OAK” and “LEY,” this year, she’ll do so with the knowledge that for millions of Americans, Red Sneakers Day is finally recognized as “an important enough day to put on the calendar.”
On May 20,
Show Your Red!
Use hashtags #redsneakersforoakley #livlikeoaks #internationalredsneakersday #foodallergyawareness. Remember to tag and follow in social media: