Red Sneakers Day 2024: Expanding West for Food Allergy Impact

in Features, Food Allergy
Published: May 7, 2024
Red Sneakers Day
CAPEHART Merrill, Robert and Olivia Debbs.

Get your red sneakers out, it’s almost time to make tracks for the eighth annual International Red Sneakers Day. The day – Monday, May 20 – honors the late Oakley Debbs while drawing worldwide attention to the seriousness of food allergies.

International Red Sneakers Day has become the most visually popular day of May’s Food Allergy Awareness Month. On the date, people around the globe post photos on social media wearing red shoes, T-shirts, hats and more. (See “How to Participate” below.)

Yet, raising the profile of food allergies takes effort and persistence. No one knows that better than Oakley’s mom Merrill Debbs, co-founder of the Red Sneakers for Oakley (RSFO) nonprofit. In 2016, the Debbs’ son tragically died of a severe food-allergic reaction at only 11 years of age. 

“Now, eight years later, I think people are starting to realize, ‘yes, this is serious,’” Merrill Debbs tells Allergic Living.

In 2024, RSFO is expanding its reach. The Debbs family and their nonprofit are based in Florida, but now they’ll have a big presence in the Midwest. This is thanks to a collaboration with two food allergy families – and the launch of the first RSFO charter chapter. 

“It’s very exciting,” Merrill Debbs says of the newly established Red Sneakers for Food Allergy Awareness – Peoria (in the Illinois city). She hopes for more RSFO chapters in the future, “to expand the education into areas where we might not have access.” 

Chapter co-founders Chris Horan and Lindsey Spangler initially started a support group called AACE Peoria (Allergy Awareness for Children Everywhere). As they decided to pursue nonprofit status, Spangler says collaborating with Red Sneakers seemed an obvious fit.

They share RSFO’s goals of educating, advocating and supporting families with food allergies. “We love their mission. It’s what we want to do,” she says.

Red Sneakers Day to Reach Millions

The Spanglers and the Horans have ambitious goals to improve inclusion and safety for those navigating food allergies. Spangler, a nurse practitioner, has already been involved in training staff at Peoria schools on anaphylaxis and epinephrine training. Plus, the RSFO chapter is starting to work with local restaurants on allergy education.

Spangler and her husband Kevin have a daughter Naomi, 4, who is allergic to mustard seed, eggs, shellfish and strawberries. Horan and his wife Megan have sons Brody, 3, and Dylan, 16 months. Brody is allergic to peanuts, and possibly oats.

Chris and Megan Horan with sons Brody and Dylan.

Thanks to the efforts of the Debbs and RSFO, red has joined teal as a visual symbol of food allergy advocacy. Oakley was a gifted young athlete, and red was his favorite sneaker color. Popular T-shirts sold by RSFO bear the slogan: “Ask me why I wear red sneakers?” It’s an invitation that opens the door to food allergy education.

Oakley’s mom hopes at least 11 million people worldwide (a previous record) are reached on May 20 for International Red Sneakers Day. Merrill Debbs says all the social media posts featuring red sneakers, fill her with joy. “My eyes well because Oakley didn’t die in vain.”

Among in-person Red Sneakers Day activities, RSFO will host an all-ages event in West Palm Beach, Florida on May 19. In California, Red Sneakers youth ambassador Allergic Emma will host her third annual Food Allergy Meetup on May 18. 

In the new chapter’s location, the memory of Oakley shone brightly when Peoria’s Murray Baker Bridge lit up in red on May 1, Horan says. That was the local kickoff to Food Allergy and Asthma Awareness Month. The Peoria bridge will also glow red on May 20 for International Red Sneakers Day. 

Oakley’s Story and Epinephrine

The Debbs family – Merrill, her husband Robert and their daughter Olivia – work tirelessly to inform others about the seriousness of food allergies. A key part of their message is the importance of using epinephrine (and promptly) in a severe reaction. 

“That part was lacking in our experience with Oakley. If I had known more about the importance of epinephrine, I would have been prepared,” Oakley’s mom says.

The boy, who was allergic to nuts and had asthma, suffered a severe allergic reaction during a November 2016 family trip. A piece of cake he’d eaten was later found to contain tree nut. 

The Debbs had been advised that Oakley’s nut allergy was “minor.” So, they initially treated him as they had with previous reactions, with Benadryl, and then his nebulizer. But Oakley fell into anaphylactic shock and ultimately lost his life.

Access to epinephrine is also vital to Red Sneakers’ mission. The organization is backing Florida congressman Maxwell Alejandro Frost’s federal bill to cap the cost of epinephrine auto-injectors. The nonprofit is working to gain bipartisan support for the proposed legislation, Merrill Debbs says. 

The epinephrine work resonates with the Spanglers and the Horans. They too want to ensure that as many people as possible are educated about and equipped with epinephrine injectors. 

Spangler admires the fortitude of the Debbs family, after suffering such a profound loss. “How amazing and strong they are, doing so much to help so many people.”

Educating the Educators

The impact of RSFO is clear at St. George’s School in Rhode Island, where Oakley’s twin Olivia will soon graduate. During her time there, the high school has embraced the Red Sneakers’ mission. The school has set up protocols to better protect food-allergic students and provided food allergy education, Merrill Debbs says. 

Kevin and Lindsey Spangler with their daughter, Naomi.

Olivia’s fellow teammates all wore red during her last high school soccer game, dedicating the game to Red Sneakers for Oakley. The 18-year-old will begin attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas in the fall. The college features an Allercheck-certified dining station. And Debbs says plans are already taking shape to bring the Red Sneakers message to students there, too. 

RSFO continues to advance its efforts to provide food allergy resources in schools. In Florida, the nonprofit has partnered with the Palm Beach County Public Schools to ensure food allergy policies are effective and as advisors on best practices for the use of stock epinephrine. The school system, which has about 170,000 students in 182 district schools, recently received a grant for stock epinephrine auto-injectors. 

Debbs is also working with the public school system to organize a Red Sneakers Day for 2025. Providing resources in the public schools has been a longtime goal, Debbs says. “I think they really see the need for epinephrine and education in the schools,” she says. 

In Peoria, Lindsey Spangler employs RFSO resources to provide training on food allergies and epinephrine for staff and nurses in local schools. The staff she’s met so far “were thankful to have someone come in and help them.” In the area’s daycares, the support group is also providing training – and hopes to have funds available soon to donate stock auto-injectors. 

“We want to educate as many people as we can,” Spangler says. 

Community Outreach

The new chapter’s training efforts extend to restaurants, too. The group hosted a fundraising party on May 2 at the suburban Peoria restaurant Clink Bar and Events. This launched it as the area’s first allergy-aware restaurant. 

The chapter teamed up with the Auvi-Q brand to donate epinephrine auto-injectors to the restaurant. As she’s a nurse practitioner, Spangler was able to write the prescription for the restaurant to have stock epinephrine under the Illinois Epinephrine Auto-Injector Act

She also organized the restaurant’s staff getting food allergy training and certification through FARECheck, and ServSafe. Red Sneakers Peoria donated the education, training and certifications.

“We want our families to be able to safely enjoy going out to a restaurant,” says Spangler. She and Horan hope other local restaurants follow Clink’s lead.

The group plans to host other events and provide resources throughout the year. A highlight will be a 5K walk/run and teal pumpkin festival for October 12, 2024. 

Oakley’s mom is very pleased that RSFO and its new chapter can support food allergy families through events, education and by providing important information. “We want to wrap our arms around other families,” Merrill Debbs says. 

Anyone can take part in International Red Sneakers Day on May 20 by wearing red sneakers (or anything red) and posting photos on social media. Posts can include a personal story, food allergy fact, or information about Oakley’s story. 

Don’t forget to use hashtags: #internationalredsneakersday, #redsneakersforoakley, #foodallergyawareness, #livlikeoaks. You can also tag @redsneakersforoakley on Facebook and Instagram. For Twitter, tag @oakley_red. 

In-Person Events

RSFO will host a free community event in West Palm Beach on Sunday, May 19. A highlight of the International Red Sneakers Day event will be a hula hoop contest with Dr. Zachary Rubin, the allergist with a huge TikTok following. The event will also feature food allergy authors, vendors and giveaways from RSFO merchandise to a sunset cruise.

In California, Allergic Emma’s third annual Food Allergy Meetup takes place on May 18 in Yorba Linda, California. The Red Sneakers Day event will feature Thomas Silvera, founder of the Elijah-Alavi Foundation, Chef Keith Norman, singer/songwriter Kendall Renee, the local mayor and more.

Related Reading:
Food Allergy, Celiac and Asthma Awareness Month Tool Kit 2024
Red Sneakers Day 2023: Teens Make Big Strides to Honor Oakley
Merrill Debbs on Honoring Oakley and the Meaning of Red Sneakers Day