South End Family Channels Grief Into Purpose #livlikeoaks


In some respects, Oakley Debbs was like many other 11-year-olds. He loved sports, hanging with his friends and had an inherent happiness and zest for life that often seems reserved for the young. But the South Ender also suffered from asthma and a “mild” allergy to nuts.

While he was very careful to check labels and avoid any foods with nuts, over a Thanksgiving vacation in Maine with his family, he ate part of a piece of coffee cake that had come in a gift basket and was now sitting out on the counter. As it turns out, what looked like chocolate was actually walnut.

After a blister appeared on his lip, his mother followed their typical protocol and administered Benadryl. The blister disappeared and they all believed the situation had passed. But then Oakley complained of a stomachache and vomited. What happened next is what his mom, Merril, called “a tornado of issues”. Oakley went into anaphylactic shock, suffering seizures and cardiac arrest an hour and a half after eating the nut. The family used an EpiPen three times, but it didn’t help. By the time he got to the hospital, he was nearly brain dead. Oakley later died in his father’s arms.

“He’s the man that I always wanted to be myself,” Robert Debbs told a Fox news station. “I’m just so heartbroken that he’s gone.”


His family decided that no one else should have to go through what they did needlessly. Just days after his death, they started the Red Sneakers Foundation (in honor of his favorite footwear) to celebrate his memory and raise awareness about the seriousness of nut allergies.

Students, faculty and employees at a multitude of local schools (Rosarian, Palm Beach Day, South Olive, St. Ann’s) and businesses (such as La Sirena Restaurant) have begun wearing red shoes to support the cause. The Organization’s Facebook page  is filled with with photos of individuals around the world doing the same.


The Debbs Family has already heard from people via Facebook that they have never met, but who credit them with saving their child’s life. After hearing the tragic story of this West Palm Beach boy, they changed their protocol in dealing with their child’s allergic reaction.

“This child of mine, he was a rock star, he was a good, good kid,” said Merrill. “And always in my heart of hearts, I knew that he would make a difference in his life – I just didn’t know it would be after he passed away. So that’s a big part of my driving force – the legacy of Oakley.”

The Debbs family has planned a Celebration of Life Soccer Game for this Saturday at the Palm Beach Rec Center. Players are asked to wear white attire with red shoes to show their support.



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