WEST ORANGE, NJ — At the culmination of Food Allergy Awareness Week—declared as May 12 to May 18, 2019 by the Township of West Orange—Kelly Elementary School’s fifth grade student council will host a Food Allergy Awareness assembly in collaboration with English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher Mary Quiroz on Friday.

After hearing about Quiroz’s personal connection to Red Sneakers for Oakley—a nonprofit food allergy awareness and advocacy organization run by her cousin Robert Debbs and his wife Merrill Debbs—the student council was inspired to develop a campaign that would run during Food Allergy Awareness Month in May. Friday's event will mark the start of a two-week initiative to educate Kelly students about the risks that food allergies pose to their peers.

Bringing more attention to Red Sneakers for Oakley earlier this week was resident Nicole Ruffo, who has been leading a group of parents in advocating for this cause both in the district and the community at large. Wearing red sneakers to the meeting in honor of Oakley, who died about two years ago from a life-threatening food-allergic reaction, Ruffo explained why it is crucial for parents, first responders and students to know the right steps.

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As she accepted a proclamation from the governing body declaring this week as Food Allergy Awareness Week in West Orange, Ruffo recognized that the school district has taken this seriously by forming a Food Allergy Awareness Committee, but stated that she and other community members wanted the general public to be aware of its importance as well.

"[Oakley’s] family was not taught the correct steps [...] and they watched their child perish in front of them because they did not administer epinephrine,” said Ruffo. “[His family is] trying to spread the word about how important it is to make sure that everyone has access to epinephrine, and it's very important that all first responders are trained in epinephrine administration and also have it with them." 

As a mother of four children attending West Orange schoools, three of whom currently suffer from food allergies, Ruffo shared the story of how she got into her advocacy role. Ruffo first discovered that one of her sons was severely allergic to peanut butter one afternoon when her husband was eating peanut butter-filled pretzels. Ruffo knew what to do in that moment, but she also realized that some mothers are not so lucky. 

"Luckily I had been a school teacher in Westfield, where I was educated on how to care for food-allergic children,” said Ruffo. “I do believe that saved my son's life because I immediately knew that we had to call 9-1-1… 

“I am here because the children of West Orange and adults now are becoming more allergic at a higher rate...One in 13—and I think they're bringing it down to one in 12—children is suffering from life-threatening food allergies. So you're talking two per classroom, which is a very high number of children in the school."

During Friday’s assembly at Kelly Elementary, the members of the student council will present a series of skits focusing on five tips that all students should be made aware of when handling food and when associating with students who have known allergies. These include:

  1. Showing respect for your friend’s allergies;
  2. Washing your hands before and after eating;
  3. Not sharing your food with others;
  4. Getting the immediate help from the right person; and
  5. Being kind to those with allergies.

The students will then engage in a follow-up discussion to see how much they remember from the skits. At the end of the assembly, the student council will introduce their food-allergy campaign, which will last until May 31.

For the next two weeks, posters hung throughout the school in both Spanish and English will remind students of the five tips learned during the assembly. Members of the student council will also read daily facts in both languages as part of morning announcements.

In collaboration with Kelly art teacher Nicole Siebert, students will have the opportunity to participate in a bookmark contest, the winners of which will be determined by the student body through a Google form. Winners from grades K-2 and 3-5 will be announced on June 7 and will receive red sneakers as a prize.

Donations for Red Sneakers for Oakley will be collected through the end of the month, and students who donate at least $1 will receive a Red Sneakers for Oakley bracelet or a pencil. Students will also be encouraged to wear red and will receive red laces in honor of International Red Sneakers for Oakley Day on May 20.

Quiroz said that she hopes this initiative will inspire students to want to learn more about allergy awareness and that this campaign will continue for years to come.

The official proclamation from the township explains that “as many as 32 million Americans have food allergies, and nearly 6 million are children under the age of 18.” It also states that research shows that the prevalence of food allergies is increasing among both children and adults, and that the eight foods that cause the majority of all food-allergy reactions in the U.S. are shellfish, fish, milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, soy and wheat.

According to the proclamation, symptoms of a food-allergy reaction can range from mild to severe, such as anaphylaxis, which is a serious allergenic reaction that is rapid in onset and may cause death. Food allergies result in more than 200,000 emergency department visits each year, and the number of food allergy reactions requiring emergency treatment has increased sharply over the last decade.

The township’s proclamation also recognizes Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to “improving the quality of life and the health of individuals with food allergies” and providing them with hope that new treatments are forthcoming.

Mayor Robert Parisi signed off on the declaration of Food Allergy Awareness Week as a special week in West Orange and encouraged all residents to “increase their understanding and awareness of food allergies and anaphylaxis.”

“I want to thank the mayor and council for being so wonderful when I wrote them about this proclamation,” said Ruffo. “The responses that I got were really positive and affirming of the work that we’re doing. I’m here on behalf of my family and the many other West Orange families who are suffering from life-threatening food allergies.”

All materials used during the Food Allergy Awareness campaign were provided by Red Sneakers for Oakley as part of its School Initiatives Program. To learn more about Red Sneakers for Oakley, click HERE or see the video below.