Monday, 11 December 2017

C Columns

The Shoe That Grows: Because International's 'practical compassion'

September/October 2016


 

 

Because International President Andrew Kroes, left, and founder Kenton Lee with a group of Haitian children wearing The Shoe That Grows. (Photo courtesy of Because International)

By Sandy Jones

Born and raised in Nampa, Idaho and a graduate of Northwest Nazarene University, Kenton Lee felt called to the mission field. Having served on a couple of weeklong mission trips with his church group, Kenton knew that to make this decision he needed to spend a considerable amount of time in the mission field before he made a commitment. Right after college he opted to spend six months in Quito, Ecuador, but it was the six months of 2007 that he spent near Nairobi, Kenya that forever changed his life ― and the lives of many others.
   Living and working in an orphanage of about 140 kids outside of Nairobi, Kenton recalls having “an amazing time.” Walking to church one Sunday he looked down and a little girl in a white dress was walking next to him; it was then he noticed that her shoes were so much too small for her feet that the toes of the shoes had actually been cut off to allow room for her toes to stick out. Kenton knew these children were poor, but it wasn’t until then, as he looked around and saw many other children in the same situation, that it hit him just how incredibly poor they were. 
   Later that day he went to the director of the orphanage to inquire about the children’s shoes. The director explained that the previous year a group had sent a shipment of clothes and shoes, but nothing since. It was all the orphanage could do to keep a roof over the children’s heads and food on their table ― they simply had to make do with what they had. It was then the thought crossed Kenton’s mind: “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a shoe that could adjust and expand, so that kids always had a pair of shoes that fit?” Fortunately, he wrote those thoughts down.
   Upon his return to Nampa, Kenton realized that the mission field was not his calling, but his heart to serve was beating every bit as strong. He asked himself: “What can I do from here that’s still missional? How can I be involved in missions right here in Nampa, Idaho?”
   Then he ran across the note he’d made about children needing a shoe that grows with them, which started him on his way; soon after, a few friends joined in and they started Because International in 2009, practicing what they call “Practical Compassion.” Since none of them knew anything about shoes, they reached out to the big brands ― Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Crocs, Toms ― and either they weren’t interested, or they told Kenton’s little troop that it wasn’t a good idea, it just wouldn’t work.
   Thinking they weren’t explaining the concept well enough, Kenton's group had a friend make a video, which they presented to the major manufacturers, with the same result. 
   Determined as ever, Kenton went to area thrift stores and Walmart to buy “cheap” shoes, cutting them up in his garage and trying to piece together a prototype of what he had in mind. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that he really didn’t know what he was doing and the project wasn’t going anywhere. Knowing the big brands weren’t interested in helping, Kenton and his team found a small shoe company in Portland, Oregon that actually makes prototypes of shoes. Christians also, the owners of the company had been on mission trips themselves and had also seen this real need. They were in! Working through the design process together they finally came up with The Shoe That Grows. Five years of hard work and dedication had paid off!
   With his wife, Nikki, Kenton took the 100 pairs of the prototype and returned to Kenya, placing them in four different schools and having the kids try them out for about a year. The kids loved them but they had a few changes to make, so back to the shoe company in Portland; then, the first batch of 3,000 pairs was made. The end result, in Kenton’s own words: “…just a really simple, functional shoe for kids who are in desperate need of sustainable footwear…” The shoe project was funded largely by donations from friends, family, and Kenton and his friends' own money.
   Kenton and Nikki stored the shoes in their guest room, with the plan to send them with friends and sell them to people going on mission trips. Since he was working a full-time job at Northwest Nazarene University, this was supposed to be a small side project. That was until Buzzfeed.com, a website based out of New York, picked up their story in April of 2015 and published an article that prompted a “tidal wave” of publicity. They sold out of shoes that day! Between that publicity and the people who’d been directed to their website as a result of the story, they had $112,000 donated by people from around the world in the next two weeks. Out of shoes, Kenton started taking pre-orders for mission trips that were scheduled for that summer. They had shoes being made as quickly as possible, running short for approximately three months while production caught up to demand.
   Soon Kenton realized that his small side project had outgrown him. The first person he had shared his idea with was his best friend since second grade, Andrew Kroes, who quit his full-time job in Boise to join him. Having always been a part of the project, Andrew is now the president of Because International. Kenton laughs and shares: “He’s 100 times better at business than I am!”
   In the 12 months following July 2015 Because International has gotten over 50,000 pairs of The Shoe That Grows to kids in over 70 countries, primarily through mission trips and organizations that work with kids in need. It’s amazing that a shoe that grows five sizes can be manufactured, packaged in a nylon backpack, and delivered to a child in need for as little as $16. Kenton explained that most missionary trips order a large duffel bag (provided by Because International) with 50 pairs of shoes in it to take with them for $800. Some larger groups take two of these duffel bags with them for a total of 100 pairs of shoes at a discounted rate of $1,500. 
   With his heart for the people in these areas, Kenton is now working to shift production to a small factory in Ethiopia and hopes to find a similar partner in Haiti, where most of their shoes go. Moving production will create jobs in those areas and keep the costs of shipping down to maintain the affordability of the shoes.
   A true visionary, Kenton sees The Shoe That Grows expanding, with the eventual possibility of retail sales here in the U.S. and other countries. But as we parted that day, he hinted at the next project for children in dire need in struggling countries that is set to be launched the first part of 2017. A story that clearly is “…to be continued…!”

For more information, or to contact Kenton Lee about The Shoe That Grows, go to www.TheShoeThatGrows.org; to learn more about Because International, go to  www.BecauseInternational.org.



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