Red Sneakers Day 2023: Teens Make Big Strides to Honor Oakley

in Features, Food Allergy
Published: May 3, 2023
Olivia, Robert and Merrill Debbs. Photo: Julia Duresky

More than 250 students at Noelle Nelson’s high school paid $1 to wear red sneakers for food allergy awareness. Nelson hosted the “Buck-a-Stuff” fundraiser to support the nonprofit Red Sneakers for Oakley (RSFO), which educates and advocates about food allergies in memory of Oakley Debbs.

“It was amazing to see everyone come through the door with so many red sneakers,” says Nelson, a junior at Notre Dame Academy in Los Angeles. 

Nelson wanted the school’s free dress day (where students can wear something other than the required uniform) to make a big impact for food allergies. Aside from red sneakers, her schoolmates strode in wearing RSFO bracelets and teal clothes and ribbons, since teal represents food allergy. Nelson, an RSFO ambassador, also created an educational video about food allergies. The student body of about 300 teens watched it – and learned.

This inspiring event and others like it are the prelude to the big day. May 20 is International Red Sneakers Day – a day when millions worldwide will participate through events and on social media. (See “How to Participate” below.) The date falls in food allergy and asthma awareness month and pays homage to the No. 20 uniform Oakley wore. The gifted athlete died of anaphylaxis in 2016 – at 11 years of age. 

Sophomore Emily Nudelman and junior Justin Wachen also hosted a Red Sneakers Day fundraiser at their high school in Ardsley, New York. More than 120 participants, many of whom sported red sneakers, competed on 17 teams for Volleyball Night. The RSFO ambassadors raised about $1,400. 

“Many of our peers congratulated us on a successful event,” says Nudelman, who is allergic to peanuts. She was struck by how many also thanked them for “educating on a serious topic that people live with every day.”  

Debbs Family: Mission to Educate

Oakley Debbs

It is not lost on Merrill Debbs that Oakley would have been the same age as the high school RSFO ambassadors, who are hosting events to educate in her son’s memory. 

Oakley’s twin sister Olivia, 17, is also working to raise awareness about food allergies as an RSFO ambassador at her school. “These kids are the gladiators. They’re bringing the awareness and education to other students,” Merrill Debbs says. 

Children and adults of all ages can join the RSFO ambassador program to make a difference in their communities by being food allergy advocates. Ambassadors, like the students hosting fundraisers, educate their peers about food allergies. They share Oakley’s story to reveal the seriousness of a condition that is too often misunderstood. RSFO ambassador-led events now take place around the globe.

Today, Oakley’s athletic shoe color of choice is a symbol of food allergy advocacy for millions worldwide. And Merrill and her husband Robert Debbs work tirelessly to build awareness of the RSFO cause. 

It was during a November 2016 family trip that Oakley, who was allergic to nuts and had asthma, suffered a severe allergic reaction. He had eaten a piece of cake that was later found to contain tree nut. 

The Debbs had been advised their son’s nut allergy was “minor.” So, they initially treated him as they had with previous reactions, with Benadryl. But as the RSFO website relates, when the EMTs arrived and administered epinephrine, Oakley had already fallen into anaphylactic shock. He died later in the hospital.

Oakley’s family feels driven to inform others about the seriousness of food allergies, to prevent the tragic loss they experienced. “You don’t want to wear those red sneakers and look at the empty pair next to you,” Merrill Debbs tells Allergic Living.

Advocacy for Oakley: Epi First, Epi Fast 

RSFO consistently stresses the importance of administering epinephrine quickly in a severe reaction, citing the motto, “Epi first, epi fast”. 

Noelle Nelson: red sneakers advocate.

One project the nonprofit is launching focuses on this importance of administering epinephrine. A public service announcement created with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns aims to help educate families about food allergies and anaphylaxis. 

The video, taped recently with Suns mascot Gorilla Go and children with food allergies, stresses the motto “Give and Go: Give epi, Go call 911.” The PSA was made possible through a $10,000 grant the Phoenix Suns Charities provided to RSFO.

Oakley’s parents say they had not been educated with the message to use epinephrine, not antihistamines, as the go-to treatment for anaphylaxis.

Merrill Debbs receives heartwarming testimonials from people around the globe. They have been touched by her son’s story or have learned life-saving information through the nonprofit created in his memory. Most of the anecdotes Debbs hears start with, “Oakley’s story saved my life.”

“These stories make me happy and sad,” says Oakley’s mom. She is glad that relaying information saves someone’s life. But she’s also sad for the lives lost before, due to a lack of information. “If I had that information, then Oakley could be with us.”

Oakley’s story spoke to 17-year-old Nelson when she became an RSFO ambassador in January 2023. The focus on “Epi first, epi fast” especially resonated. She had experienced a couple of anaphylactic reactions during the previous year, for the first time in several years. The teen is allergic to dairy, peanut, tree nuts, some antibiotics, and has asthma.

Nelson’s efforts to educate include creating a curriculum to teach fourth- and fifth-graders about food allergies as part of her Girl Scout Gold Award Project. She is also publishing a book, which she hopes to have available by late May on her own food allergy awareness website

“For me, the importance has always been about educating and increasing awareness about food allergies,” says Nelson.  

How to Participate on May 20

Anyone can take part in International Red Sneakers Day by wearing red sneakers (or anything red) and posting on social media. RSFO invites everyone to share photos and videos featuring their red sneakers. They ask that you use a caption that includes a personal story, facts about food allergies or Oakley’s story. Or, write about why International Red Sneakers Day is important. 

Justin and Emily: volleyball awareness.

Don’t forget to use hashtags: #internationalredsneakersday, #redsneakersforoakley, #foodallergyawareness, #livlikeoaks. 

Also tag @redsneakersforoakley on Facebook and Instagram. For Twitter, tag @oakley_red. In May 2022, RSFO tracked an impressive 9 million people reached worldwide through digital media.

RSFO will be hosting its own free community event on May 20 for Red Sneakers Day in West Palm Beach, Florida. The event will feature appearances by well-known food allergy researcher Dr. Ruchi Gupta of Northwestern University and author Sonia Hunt. There will be activities for all ages, and allergy-friendly vendors.

Merrill Debbs anticipates a big turnout. She wants the event to leave people with a far better understanding of food allergies. 

“I’m hoping people will walk away with knowledge, and understand that this can even be fatal,” she says.

Back in New York, students Wachen and Nudelman also hope people take to heart the message about the severity of food allergies on May 20. 

“We feel it is important that on International Red Sneakers Day people remember how allergies can affect someone’s life – as they did Oakley’s. We hope as more people learn his story, tragic events like his can be prevented in the future,” says Wachen, who is allergic to tree nuts.

For more information on RSFO and May 20, see:

Related Reading: 
The Story of Oakley Debbs
View “Give and Go” Video with Suns’ Mascot
Allergic Living’s Food Allergy Awareness Posters
All About Epinephrine: What It Does; What if It Gets Hot or Cold?