On November 26, 2016, 11-year-old Oakley Debbs passed away following a severe allergic reaction. While taking a break from playing with his sister and cousins, Oakley had eaten some cake, unaware that it contained traces of walnut. Oakley’s reaction was not immediate and while he appeared okay on the outside, that was not the case for what was going on inside of his body. An hour and a half after eating the cake, Oakley was taken to a local hospital by ambulance and later passed away.
Oakley’s favorite things were soccer and red sneakers. Oakley’s mother, Merrill Debbs, has used the latter to turn his death into a positive thing. Along with her husband, Robert, she founded the Red Sneakers for Oakley Foundation (RSFO), its mission to create educational community outreach programs, help implement precautionary protocols and advocate for food allergy awareness. autionary protocols and advocacy
The RSFO has started Red Sneakers for Oakley School Days to help spread the awareness of food allergies in schools. The general idea was for participating students to wear red sneakers and walk through their school, neighborhood or town to promote awareness. Some schools also include educational programs where they discuss food allergies, mainly the Top 8 allergens, and where these allergens can be found. The focus is not to scare children, especially the younger ones, but rather to teach them to be aware, mindful and careful.
According to Debbs, approximately 75 schools have participated in RSFO school days this year. These are schools that either contacted the foundation through their website or Facebook page, or sent pictures or videos after their day. There are other schools that have participated but did not notify the RSFO foundation. While many students are sporting red sneakers on these days, most schools are adapting the day to fit their needs while still showing support and bringing awareness. Some students are doing red shoelaces or shirts instead of sneakers.
A lot of schools’ athletic teams are showing their support as well. Soccer was Oakley’s favorite sport, so school soccer teams are wearing red socks, shin guards or hair ribbons during their games. And it’s not just primary schools that are participating—the hockey and basketball teams at Trinity College have sported red shoelaces at games to spread awareness. Oakley and his twin sister Olivia’s school, Rosarian Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida, has held special events to honor Oakley and spread food allergy awareness. Their soccer and flag football teams have worn red sneakers during several games as well.
Beyond Red Sneakers: Educating Schools and Communities
One in every 13 children has a food allergy. Depending on the size of the class, that is one to two children per classroom. For teachers who have different students each period, that is at least a dozen students they encounter daily who have food allergies. The more food allergies are talked about and people realize what a serious issue they are, the more careful those who are non-allergic are likely to be.
Two huge ways in which schools can be prepared to deal with allergic reactions are to have a menu board in their cafeteria and epinephrine injectors stocked at the school. Menu boards that list the foods being served that day, as well as what allergens are present, are helpful to children with food allergies even though they may not eat the food. There could still be accidental exposure, and this helps them as well as their peers be mindful.
Having stocked epinephrine in schools is important as well. And it should be in multiple places: close to the school’s defibrillator if they have one, in the cafeteria, the main office, nurse’s office, etc. All students who have a diagnosed food allergy should self-carry their own epinephrine. But kids are kids, and they may forget their epinephrine in the classroom when they go to PE or lunch. Or they may have only one epinephrine auto injector, and one dose may not be enough. However, a student may have developed a food allergy they’re not yet aware of and have a reaction at school, in which case they would be dependent on that stock epinephrine to save their life.
Spreading Awareness in Your Community
Are you wondering what steps you can take to promote food allergy education and awareness in your child’s school and community? Well, for one, you can visit the RSFO website or Facebook page and schedule your own Red Sneakers for Oakley School Day. You can participate in or host a run/walk to advocate for allergy awareness. You can meet with your child’s school administrators and nurses and inquire about implementing a menu board and stock epinephrine, if they do not already have them. If your child’s school still allows outside food in the classrooms, ask if they will reconsider. Younger children, especially those in preschool and kindergarten, have had little to no allergy exposure prior to starting school, and some of them are having their first reactions at school because of food that is being brought in.
Also, the RSFO foundation has announced that May 20, 2018, will be International Red Sneakers Day. You can participate by wearing red sneakers and sharing your pictures online using the hashtag #InternationalRedSneakersDay.
Have you held a RSFO day at your child’s school? What ways have you promoted food allergy education and awareness at school and in your community? We would love to hear from you.