NAMPA, IDAHO —
Children outgrow their shoes quickly. That often leaves kids who live in abject poverty no option but to walk around barefoot. An estimated 300 million children around the world don’t have shoes and are prone to suffer from soil-transmitted diseases and parasites.
Kenton Lee has a practical solution — a shoe that grows as the child does.
The shoes can expand up to five sizes and last up to five years. They can be adjusted at three places: the front with a hook and holes like a waist belt, the sides with Velcro, and the back with a buckle. The bottom is made of compressed rubber-like tire rubber, and the top is high-quality leather.
Lee worked as a volunteer in an orphanage in Kenya after graduating from Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, where he lives now.
He told VOA about a little girl in a white dress who was walking next to him one day.
“I remember looking down and seeing how small her shoes were,” he said. “They were way too small for her feet. They were so small she had to cut open the front of her shoes to let her toes stick out. I just remember thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if there were a pair of shoes that could grow with her feet.”
Creating a shoe that grows
Turning his idea into reality was not easy.
“I kept writing down I should do this because of this, because of that,” Lee said. “All these reasons why it really was important for me to try to make the shoes that could grow and try to help kids.”
Finally in 2009, the nonprofit organization Because International was born. Lee keeps a pair of rugged shoes on a shelf in his office as a reminder of his commitment.
“I told myself I would not get new shoes until the idea was done,” Lee said. “So those are the shoes I wore for a little over five years. They got holes in them. They got really beat up, but once we finally made The Shoe That Grows happen, then I finally got some new shoes.”
So far, working with partner organizations, Because International has sent more than 50,000 pairs of the shoes to 70 countries on six continents. The shoe comes in two sizes, a small that fits children ages 4 to 9, and a large for youngsters ages 9 to 14.
Not just shoes, but jobs
Lee says the majority of the shoes are going to East Africa.
“So Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia. And also a lot of our shoes go to Haiti, Nicaragua, some of the Central American countries as well — anywhere where there are needs for footwear.”
Lee points out that many children live in areas without adequate sanitation. Many soil-transmitted diseases and parasites get into the body through the soles of their feet.
“It is really heartbreaking,” Lee said. “They stay sick for a long time. They are not able to afford medical care. So a lot of them just really fall behind. They don’t go to school. They don’t learn and grow as a child should.”
Because International recently began to manufacture the shoes in some of the countries where the footwear is needed to help bring jobs to people there, too.
Lee believes a pair of shoes offers more than protection; it provides dignity. He says his goal is to help get the Shoe That Grows to as many children as he can around the world.
“Because it is a small thing that really does make a big difference to keep them healthy and happy and having more chances to succeed,” he said.