On May 20, participants will lace up their red sneakers to play soccer on the Oakley Gage Debbs Memorial Field on Florida’s Atlantic coast. The game is a fitting highlight for International Red Sneakers Day, which supports food allergy awareness in memory of Oakley Debbs, the young athlete who developed his love of soccer on that very field.
It was among several sports that Oakley enjoyed playing before he died of anaphylaxis at only 11 years of age. He died from inadvertently being exposed to tree nut in a piece of cake.
“He loved being on the soccer field, to run and kick that soccer ball,” says Oakley’s mom Merrill Debbs of West Palm Beach, Florida. In 2017, the pitch that’s part of the Palm Beach Recreation Center, was dedicated in his name.
Red Sneakers for Oakley (RSFO) is partnering with Palm Beach Day Academy to host the tournament and awareness assembly, which will feature allergists sharing information about food allergies.
The Debbs family created the nonprofit RSFO to diligently educate and raise awareness about the severity of food allergies. Red sneakers became their visual emblem, as a nod to their son’s favorite athletic shoe color. They chose the date May 20 for International Red Sneakers Day, which lands during food allergy and asthma awareness month, in honor Oakley’s jersey – No. 20. His twin sister Olivia also now wears No. 20 while competing in sports, including varsity soccer and ice hockey.
The May 20 soccer game provides food allergy education in a way that resonates with kids, Debbs says. “I don’t want food allergies to be frumpy. I think if you make the event fun, it’s received better.”
Show Us Your Red on May 20
International Red Sneakers Day, now recognized on the National Day Calendar, has become a global event.
So on May 20, people all over the world can share how they’re active in their red shoes. RSFO invites everyone to wear red sneakers (or anything red) and post a photo or video on social media, along with a caption that could include a fact about food allergies, a personal experience, Oakley’s story, or why International Red Sneakers Day is important. Don’t forget to use hashtags: #internationalredsneakersday, #redsneakersforoakley, #foodallergyawareness, #livlikeoaks.
The organization plans to use posts from May 20 as part of a video montage to be screened at this year’s RSFO benefit, held annually in November.
The nonprofit will also film a new PSA this year, thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Phoenix Suns. RSFO is working with the NBA team to create the video to help lower-income families understand anaphylaxis.
Last year, the goal of the “Hey, It’s May” video was to raise awareness of food allergies among the younger generation, Debbs says. That video was among social media posts that resulted in about 11 million RSFO impressions during May 2021, mostly connected to May 20.
Educating, Preventing Tragedies
Merrill and her husband Robert Debbs founded RSFO in an effort to prevent other families from experiencing the tragic loss they have suffered. In November 2016, the couple and their kids Oakley and Olivia were in Maine to celebrate Thanksgiving. Oakley, who was allergic to nuts and had asthma, suffered a severe allergic reaction after eating a piece of cake later found to contain walnut extract.
Oakley’s parents say they had not been properly educated about how to recognize or treat a life-threatening allergic reaction. Instead, they had been told that Oakley’s nut allergy was “minor,” and instructed to focus on their son’s severe asthma. So Merrill Debbs initially treated her son’s reaction with Benadryl, as they’d done in the past.
Today, the Debbs stress the importance of giving epinephrine promptly in an escalating food-allergic reaction. “Epi first, epi fast,” is the motto they use, reminding that epinephrine, not antihistamines, are the first-line treatment for anaphylaxis. As they share on the RSFO website, the EMTs administered epinephrine to Oakley after arriving, but the 11-year-old had already fallen into anaphylactic shock. He died later in the hospital.
The day of his reaction, Oakley had been wearing black sneakers because he was saving his new red sneakers to wear on Thanksgiving Day. Those red sneakers have now become a symbol of advocacy for millions of people living with food allergies.
“Oakley is in the inspiration for everything I do,” Merrill Debbs says.
Ambassadors for Advocacy
Many of the events on May 20 in communities across the United States are thanks to kids and adults who’ve joined RSFO as ambassadors to “inspire, educate and empower their peers.” Red Sneaker Ambassador Program participants celebrate International Red Sneakers Day with social media posts – and by organizing an event.
Seven-year-old Emma Melin, who has multiple food allergies, is one proud ambassador. The girl from Southern California excels in school, and loves to play sports like softball, basketball and gymnastics. Rose Melin, her mom, says she was very frightened by the first of Emma’s five anaphylactic reactions. But through their difficult journey, she has learned the importance of finding ways for Emma to live a fulfilling and enjoyable life.
“It’s so rewarding to see her thrive now, and to be named an ambassador for Red Sneakers for Oakley,” Melin says. “I’m so proud of my little girl.”
Emma hopes to inspire others with food allergies to live life to the fullest. “I want to let other kids with food allergies know that they can do anything, as long as they prepare and are careful.”
She plans to share her message in her community while hosting the first Red Sneakers Food Allergy Meetup with Allergic Emma on May 21 in Orange County. The free event in honor of Red Sneakers Day is a chance for attendees to get tips about navigating life with food allergies, while connecting with others. It will feature live music, fire department speakers and well-known allergy chef Keith Norman. (More details are available on Emma’s YouTube channel, Allergic Emma.)
“Being an ambassador is exciting. I feel like I am helping people and making a difference,” the girl enthuses.
Red Sneakers ambassadors Priscilla Hernandez and her son Zacky Muñoz, 10, of Pasadena are also advocating for change for the California food allergy community. Their family is pushing for new legislation to protect students with food allergies in California schools. The purpose of Zacky’s Bill (AB2640) is to create an online California Food Allergy Resource Guide to help school communities with information about food allergy management. Hernandez wants schools to have a plan to minimize the risk of allergic reactions for students like Zacky, who has multiple food allergies and has experienced anaphylactic reactions at school.
RSFO is encouraging voters to ask their California legislators to support the bill. Debbs says Zacky’s Bill “is so important,” because too many schools are still not aware of the practices to prevent allergic reactions or how to treat them.
Putting Knowledge to Use
Education about food allergies can help in the moments of quick decision-making that can arise with allergies. Debbs recently had to make one of those decisions for Olivia, who’s now 16.
At Easter, high school sophomore, who had been ill with mononucleosis, developed hives (as opposed to a more typical mono rash). When the hives developed, Olivia’s mom questioned herself about what to do because she hadn’t prepared specifically for what to do for hives with mono. Debbs says she went through various scenarios in her head, and a lot of “do we or do we not” give her epinephrine. But when Olivia said she felt like she had fire ants all over her body, Debbs couldn’t find a reason not to use the auto-injector.
Olivia gave herself the Auvi-Q epinephrine auto-injector and listened to it count down. Her symptoms improved as they followed protocol to call 911 and head to the hospital. Olivia was observed for several hours and released.
Debbs is glad that they acted on the knowledge they had gained since Oakley died. This was a situation she could not have imagined. While Olivia had one previous reaction in 2017, where she was treated at the hospital, the teen has no known allergies.
“To epi is better than nothing. Oakley had nothing,” Debbs says. While Olivia in 2017 tested negative for a nut allergy, the Debbs are seeking further medical advice to try to discover the trigger for the teen’s hives.
Recovered from mono, Olivia has returned to school, where she is surrounded by friends who often wear red sneakers to support her. While a typical teen girl in a lot of ways, Oakley’s twin also is a representation of the organization created in her brother’s memory, her mom says. “She carries a burden that most children don’t have.”
On May 20, when Merrill Debbs addresses those assembled on the field in her hometown, she will do so knowing that the education and awareness being spread throughout the world for International Red Sneakers Day is helping millions, including her own family.
It is a day everyone with food allergies gets to know, “You’re important and we care about you,” she says.
For more information on RSFO and May 20, see: redsneakers.org/irsd