February 2, 2018
The Palm Beach Post
Merrill Debbs wants this to be the year that everyone talks about food allergies: schools, teachers, families around the dinner table — everyone.
A little more than a year after losing her son, Oakley, to anaphylactic shock related to a nut allergy, Debbs is ramping up her organization’s outreach efforts. Red Sneakers for Oakley is asking schools around the country to host food allergy awareness days so that these types of deaths can be prevented as much as possible.
“We are really pounding the pavement to get this information out,” Debbs said. No parent wants to be me. You don’t want to see your kid die in front of your from eating a piece of cake.”
A few colleges around the country have done their events already, a few dozen more schools have expressed interest and Rosarian Academy — Oakley’s former school — held its annual family fun night to honor Oakley.
The event, which was sponsored by the Las Vegas-based company Zappos, saw hundreds of kids and parents clad in red sneakers, which were always Oakley’s favorite. Last year, Zappos gave out red sneakers and this year the company sponsored all the rides.
For Rosarian, Oakley’s tragic death, which occurred while the family was on vacation, precipitated much stricter guidelines around food allergies like being mindful about the products they bring in, training staff to be aware and showing the kids how to protect themselves.
“It’s really changed the way that I administer a school,” said Steve Rubenacker, Rosarian’s head of school. “It’s radically different than it was a couple of years ago.”
Zappos and other companies stepping up are incredibly helpful when they put their weight behind events that help spread awareness, Debbs said.
“Corporate sponsors are able to get the message out faster than we can locally,” she said.
For now, awareness is all they can really do. Though research is being done into food allergies, scientists are stumped on what is causing them and why they are on the rise.
So the biggest thing they can do for now is to get into as many schools as possible to spread the word.
The Greene School in West Palm Beach will be hosting its own food allergy awareness week, and Debbs is urging other Palm Beach County schools to do the same.