His life changed on a dusty road under the hot summer sun in Nairobi, Kenya.
Kenton Lee was working at a small orphanage of more than 140 kids, whose parents had died of tuberculosis caused by HIV/AIDS. As he walked down that dusty road, he noticed the youngster walking beside him, a young girl in a white dress. He remembers her face vividly — but what changed the trajectory of his life was her feet: Her shoes were so small that she had cut open the front to let her toes stick out.
He looked around: She wasn’t the only one. The orphanage received a donation of clothes and shoes a year ago, but since then, the kids had outgrown their shoes. The orphanage barely had enough money for food, never mind shoes.
What if, he asked himself.
What if there was a shoe that could grow?
• • •
Kenton was born and raised in Nampa. He had just graduated from Northwest Nazarene College with a degree in business, assumed he would be a missionary and went traveling to see the world. He spent six months working at a food bank in Quito, Ecuador, and six months at the orphanage outside of Nairobi.
He says: “I thought I needed to be out of the country for longer than two weeks to see if I could do (missionary work). I’m glad I did because I could not do it. … I missed Nampa so much. …
“So my goal became: What could I do from here that would make an impact on kids around the world?”
Parasites such as hookworm and other diseases lurk in the soil, particularly in countries with little sanitation. More than 300 million kids don’t have any shoes at all, Kenton says, and because of their poverty, they likely won’t have medical treatment either.
“I got to see it first-hand. When they get sick, they stay sick. They struggle and they can’t go to school; and they can’t help their families and they fall behind. For many of them, they just never catch up. It just derails their lives.
“It’s just heartbreaking that something — as simple as a pair of shoes — could keep them healthy so they can keep having more chances to succeed, instead of losing the chances that they do have.”
Kenton returned to Nampa in 2008, fired up.
“It just kind of opened my eyes more to people around me — and now I can’t un-see these things. …
“I just knew I couldn’t do everything. But I could do something.”
He and a group of friends brainstormed how to turn an idea into footwear. At first, they tried to give the idea away, since they knew nothing about making shoes. They called every shoe company they could think of, but no one was interested. They made a video that perhaps explained their idea better. Still no interest.
“So then, we thought, OK, we’ll do it ourselves. We went into the garage and tried to make a prototype — but again, I don’t know anything about (making) shoes.”
Then two things happened. The first was finding a company whose goal was helping fledgling shoe ideas become prototypes. And the company loved the idea. After another year of designing and tinkering, Kenton and his friends had their first prototypes.
“I look at it now and it’s just a terrible shoe. But we were thrilled.”
They held fundraiser concerts at Nampa’s Flying M, took 100 pairs to an orphanage in Kenya, got feedback, made improvements and went into production. In the fall of 2014, after nearly six years of plugging away, they finally ordered their first official batch of 3,000 shoes. They got stored in Kenton’s guest bedroom.
The second thing that happened was The Shoe That Grows went viral. “Accidentally,” Kenton says. In April 2015, Buzzfeed picked up their story. In one day, Kenton had 2,000 emails and 500 phone calls. They sold out of shoes. They got $112,000 in donations and ordered more.
“In the last 12 months, we’ve gotten over 50,000 pairs to kids in over 70 countries and continue to make the shoe better and better. It continues to adjust to five sizes and can last up to five years. We’ve gotten awesome feedback from the kids; they’re just loving it.”
In May, they opened an office in Downtown Nampa; the company supports five-and-a-half employees and two interns.
“We want to do all we can to make this a solid, sustainable organization, that can produce world-class results.”
• • •
Fifty pairs of shoes, costing about $15 a pair, conveniently fit in a big duffel bag that weighs under 50 pounds. Most all of the shoes are hand-delivered to children around the world by travelers and organizations and churches already working on the ground. They know the kids who need them.
“A lot of times, we don’t have the moments where I put this beautiful shoe on this beautiful foot. But we love that we get to help be a resource so that someone else can do that.”
Kenton relishes that feeling of helping others. Some of that sense of responsibility emanates from his faith — to love others, love the poor, be compassionate, search for justice.
“But I was surprised by this: When I lived in Quito and Nairobi … I became friends with the people around me. So then it was much less an issue of ‘my faith requires me to do this,’ or ‘my world view says I should do this;’ it was just an issue of: These kids are my friends. These people are my friends. And how can I help them?
Many of the people who deliver shoes have seen the kids who live in dirty and dangerous places and know the need. Others know what Kenton’s talking about from the stuff they see on television.
“I had this incredible experience where I got to live first-hand with (the kids). ... I saw this need, and I wanted to help make a difference for my friends.
“But (others) can do that, too. We’re all in this together. And you really can — with $15 or with a Facebook share or whatever it is — you can make a difference for a kid. And it’s just like you’re helping a friend.
“Hopefully we can get better at telling our story so people can really feel that. … You just feel like, even from Nampa, even from the Treasure Valley, we can make a huge impact on kids around the world — and we should, because what if those were our friends? What if that was your little brother? What if that was somebody you really cared about? … ”
• • •
The Shoe That Grows is a project under Because International, an umbrella non-profit that Kenton and his friends started in 2009 when Kenton returned from Africa. Because International is actually a philosophy called “practical compassion.”
It’s something anyone can do. Kenton talks about his elderly neighbor Tom buying groceries for another neighbor. And a 9-year-old girl who started up a lemonade stand and ended up donating more than $1 million to organizations that fight child slavery. And then there’s The Shoe.
“We’re not going to tackle the sanitation issue, we’re not going to bring sewage facilities to places — but here are some small things that we can do that can help the kids while other organizations work on those big issues.”
Now that the shoe is on track, they’re looking at other ways to do practical compassion, projects to help kids in extreme poverty. Most people dying from malaria, Kenton says, are under 4 years old. Most bed nets are attached to a ceiling. So they’re inventing a self-standing, pop-up bed net, like a tent, for little kids.
“I want to put people in a place to succeed. I love doing that. So whether it’s shoes that can help kids be more healthy and keep going to school and in a better spot to succeed, or a bed net … ”
Kenton quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
That difference doesn’t have to be big; it just has to be. Many of us deny our humanity, Kenton says, because we believe we can’t make a difference: We’re too small. We might make things worse. We can’t get our own life together. We aren’t smart enough.
“I almost quit many, many times.”
He lists his own voices of doubt: I’m too small. I never made a shoe before. I’m from Nampa, Idaho; I’m the son of a plumber. We’re too inexperienced. I don’t know what I’m doing.
“I guess the better word is passionate, but I say stubborn. I just got stubborn a lot. …
“A lot of people, especially the shoe companies, said this (idea) isn’t going to work. I was like, no, I was there. I saw it. This makes sense for these kids. You can’t tell me this is not a good idea because I was there. …
“And then as I went from stubborn, I probably actually became passionate, because I learned more and more, about … what a big deal it is for them to have sustainable footwear.
“Then it just became: I have to do this. I have to figure out a way to make this happen. … We stuck to it, kept working at it. And here we are. …
“Small things that make a big difference for the kids who need it most; those daily, regular everyday-life-sort of things. Like shoes.”