Mary Dougherty, advocate for food allergy awareness

Mary Dougherty of Sea Girt, an advocate for food allergy awareness. PHOTO BY MARK R. SULLIVAN

SEA GIRT — Mary Dougherty, wearing her trademark red sneakers, reflected on her 76-year relationship with Sea Girt.

“I’ve never spent a summer anywhere else. Isn’t that sad?” she said jokingly.

Ms. Dougherty, who has been a full time resident of the borough since 1975, has been the impetus behind many now familiar Sea Girt traditions. Her personal history of inaugurating programs, volunteering for service and engaging in social activism is well known throughout the community.

One of the biggest events she helped start is the annual Sea Girt 5K race, the recreation department’s biggest fundraiser of the year, which celebrated its 27th year this past Saturday.

The annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony enjoyed by residents each December is another high profile tradition that Ms. Dougherty is closely identified with.

“I tried to make Christmas fun… the town didn’t have much lighting or decorating at all,” she said.

So Ms. Dougherty took it upon herself to persuade local businesses to decorate for the season, requesting green and red colors and simple electric candles in all of the windows. She also began the borough’s annual tradition of a Christmas tree lighting near the Sea Girt plaza.

She was also an originator of summer concerts on the boardwalks, and teen dances outside the lighthouse.

She helped start the junior lifeguard program, the Sea Girt Elementary School tennis teams, movies at the beach pavilion and the borough’s platform tennis program.

She has volunteered with Operation Beachhead, hosting disabled veterans who come to the shore to engage in recreational activities.

But it is Red Sneakers for Oakley, a food allergy awareness organization formed in honor of Ms. Dougherty’s late grandson, Oakley, that has reached far beyond Sea Girt.


While on a family vacation in Maine two years ago, Oakley, 11, unknowingly ate a piece of cake that apparently had traces of peanuts or peanut oil in it. Oakley, who had a peanut allergy, went into anaphylactic shock. After telling his mother of his discomfort, she gave him a Benadryl. But two-and-a-half half hours later he told his family he was feeling sick to his stomach and asked for 911 to be called. Five minutes later, he stopped breathing.

“We all thought he had fainted, but then I saw he was turning blue,” Ms. Dougherty said. She performed CPR on her grandson. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he later died.

The memory of a joyful day turned to tragedy is vivid in her description of it: “To have the day we had and to think that little boy’s life was taken away that day, over one bite of a piece of cake … ”

Now Ms. Dougherty works closely with her son, Robert Debbs, and Red Sneakers for Oakley, named for her grandson’s affinity for red athletic sneakers.

“Our mission is educate and advocate for food allergy awareness,” Mr. Debbs, Oakley’s father, said. “Kids and people are still passing away, like my son, no signs or symptoms of anaphylaxis … there’s just not as much common knowledge [about food allergies].”

Red Sneakers has become a preeminent food allergy organization, nationally and internationally, raising its profile in as many events as possible.

“Red Sneakers has grown so much,” Ms. Dougherty said. “I think it’s enabled my son to be able to move on. May 20 is going to be Red Sneakers for Oakley Food Allergy Awareness Day nationwide … it is all about saving lives.”

The organization vigorously advocates for the availability of epinephrine autoinjectors, commonly known by the brand name Epipen.

Ms. Dougherty believes that if there had only been an epipen available that day in Maine, her grandson would still be playing soccer in his red cleats today. In fact, there was not even an epipen available in the ambulance that transported Oakley to the hospital, she said.

Red Sneaker’s is hoping to have all emergency medical technicians carry epipens, Mr. Debbs said. Ms. Dougherty also emphasizes that all children with food allergies — and their parents — should be carrying them.

“I’ll go anywhere if it’s for an event in memory of Oakley … but now [my son] tells me I don’t have to travel and attend every single event anymore,” Ms. Dougherty said. “It’s gone beyond just Oakley and has become all about awareness.”

Locally, Red Sneakers has become quite visible. Last year, the Sea Girt 5K, the tradition begun by Ms. Dougherty over 25 years ago, was dedicated in memory to Oakley. Red Sneakers also had a team run in the race this year.

Ms. Dougherty has also helped the organization get into some of the local elementary schools to educate young children about the effects, dangers and symptoms of food allergy attacks and what to do in a situation. This past year, Sea Girt Elementary School had a Red Sneaker’s Day along with St. Catharine and other schools.

“So many of the local schools have done Red Sneakers for Oakley now, and they’re doing it, raising food allergy awareness, which is just great,” she said.

One unintended effect the organization has had is to make those with allergies feel more accepted — from youngsters who have had to sit at the “peanut free table” in the cafeteria, to college students living on their own and having to take full responsibility and caution about what they eat.

Recalling an event at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, Ms. Dougherty said, “I had this little card I was giving out and it just had information on what to do, and to be a buddy if you have a roommate or friend who has [an allergy] to keep an eye on them, be supportive, and understand when they can’t eat things,” she said. “… you couldn’t believe how many college kids said ‘thank you for this.’’”

Red Sneakers has also teamed up with the research group End Allergies Together.

“We want to combine the research aspect with the awareness,” Ms. Dougherty said.

Now, Ms. Dougherty hopes that red sneakers will be the symbol for food allergies globally moving forward, continuing to work at events in memory of her grandson.

To learn more about Red Sneakers for Oakley, visit


[1] Always ask. When preparing food for multiple guests, always ask if anyone has a food allergy and be mindful of the ingredients you use in preparation.

[2] Call ahead. If going over to someone else’s house for dinner or other gatherings, be sure to inform the hosts of your food allergies. They could ensure a safe environment before you arrive and avoid the awkward rush to put something away.

[3] Don’t use and reuse. Food allergens can be spread through kitchen utensils. Don’t use the same serving spoon you use for the pecan pie for the nut-free pumpkin pie. Avoid cross contamination.

[4] Check gifts closely. Well-meaning relatives may bring food items to your home or send gift baskets. Ask about ingredients, and look closely at labels.

[5] Fly safely. If flying to see relatives, check with your airline about their food allergy protocols and policies.

[6] Learn the language. If traveling overseas, learn how to say your allergy in that country’s language. Make flash cards with written warnings.

[7] Speak Up. Be sure to tell your friends and family about your food allergies and what they need to do in case you have a reaction. Have an emergency action plan.

[8] Never leave home without it. Make sure you always have an epinephrine injector on hand in the event of allergen exposure. Better yet, make it two.

[9] Know the symptoms. Allergic reactions can range from hives to nausea to trouble breathing. When more than one internal system is involved, act fast.

[10] Inject first, then call 911. If you suspect anaphylaxis, use your epinephrine auto-injector. Then, call 911.