By Tim Fausch, ER Communications
After graduating from college, Kenton Lee thought he might become a missionary. He wanted to help people, especially kids, and set out on a journey to discover his life course by serving as an ER volunteer.
Having grown up in the small town of Nampa, Idaho, Kenton, did not have much experience with international travel and different cultures. He was searching for his next steps and found out about Extreme Response’s short-term volunteer program.
Kenton volunteered to serve with ER in Quito, Ecuador in 2007 and lived with a host family for several months. While in Quito, he helped with some short-term teams and served at ER partner Pan de Vida.
“I went to Ecuador fresh out of college,” Kenton shared. “It was a fantastic experience. I had never been in an international city as big as Quito. I saw people from all classes, including lower income people who were struggling for food, clothes and shelter. It was eye-opening. Getting to know these people personally had a big impact on me.
“I felt so supported at ER. It was well-run and had a direct impact on me. ER was doing it right and I knew that I wanted any organization I joined to be similar to ER. I couldn’t ask for a better experience.”
A few weeks after his time with ER ended, Kenton traveled to Kenya to live and serve at an orphanage with 140 kids. A month into his tenure, he had an a defining moment that would lead to inventing The Shoe That Grows.
Toes Sticking Out
“We were walking to church one Sunday morning. I’ll never forget this one little girl. She was wearing a white dress. I looked down and couldn’t believe how small her shoes were. The front of her shoes were cut open to let her toes out.
“This really bugged me. It was a very poor village in a poor country. I saw many other kids with shoes that didn’t fit, or no shoes at all.
“So I asked one of the leaders why the kids didn’t have shoes that fit. He said they had received donated shoes a year earlier, but the kids had outgrown them. That was the problem – kids always keep growing.
Kenton spent four months in Kenya before returning to the U.S.
“When I got home, I realized I could not become a missionary. I missed Idaho way too much. But I wanted to help and thought, ‘what can I do from Nampa?’
“I read my journal and found my entry on the shoes. I grabbed some friends and shared what I had seen. We decided to create a structure to get the shoes produced and launched Because International in 2009.
“We spent most of the next five years failing and struggling. We tried to give the idea away. We approached all the shoe companies. Everyone said ‘no’.
“So we tried to produce it ourselves. We made some really terrible prototypes. Fortunately, we found a small shoe company in Portland and they produced a good prototype after about one year later.
3,000 Shoes Produced in First Run
“We went back to Kenya with about 100 of the prototypes and distributed them at four schools and had the kids test them for a year. After getting their feedback we produced our first run of 3,000 shoes in October 2014.
“We had a story written about us that went viral. In one day, I got about 2,000 emails and 500 phone calls. People wanted to know how they could get the shoes or volunteer with us. It was an overwhelming, crazy couple of months. We received a lot of donations which positioned us to expand our team to six people.”
With the shoes functioning well, Kenton, now 32, and the team at Because International have expanded their vision, including setting up manufacturing in Ethiopia and soon in Haiti, plus creating new products.
“The shoes are doing great. They make a big difference in protecting kids’s feet, helping them be healthy, confident and stay in school. It’s a small thing that makes a big difference in kids’ lives. We’ve now produced 100,000 pairs and they are in 89 countries.
“There are 300 million kids without shoes in the world. We plan to take a bite out of that number. We are working to produce the shoes in factories in the countries where they are distributed in order to bring jobs in production, warehousing and distribution.”
Because International’s vision is expanding to meet other health needs found in developing countries. They are now testing a prototype mosquito net called “Bednet Buddy” to help prevent malaria in three African countries. They are targeting late 2017 to make it available.
ER Volunteer Provides Shoes for a Test
ER is pleased to have played a small role in Kenton’s journey and we are hoping to work together. We plan to test the shoes this year with some of the kids we serve through our partners and projects.
“Kenton had an impact when he served with us in Ecuador,” said ER president/CEO Jerry Carnill. “He recently shared with us how ER staff and those we serve impacted his life.
“We will be taking several pair of The Shoe That Grows with us to Kenya,” he added. “We are excited to work with Kenton and his team to provide shoes to kids across our regions.”
Because International is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and partners with other organizations to get shoes into developing countries. They provide shoes for $15 each and ship groups of 50 in big duffle bags.
ER distributed eight pairs of the shoes in Africa with our partners who serve at-risk kids. We gave out six pairs in Kenya, and one each in Malawi and South Africa. This will allow us to “field test” the shoes and gather feedback. We’re excited to help kids who otherwise would be barefoot and vulnerable to foot-borne diseases.