On a trip to Nairobi, Kenya, while volunteering at an AIDS orphanage, Kenton Lee suddenly started thinking about shoes.
“One day we were walking, and a little girl next to me had shoes that were so small–amazingly small–that she had to cut open the front of the shoe to let her toe stick out,” he says. “I started to look around and a lot of the kids had shoes that didn’t fit. They were just really way too small.”
The problem wasn’t unusual: The orphanage had received a donation of shoes over a year earlier, but couldn’t afford to buy anything new. “They’re resourceful kids, and they do the best with what they have,” says Lee. “But their feet are constantly growing. So I thought, if there was a pair of shoes that could adjust and expand their size, that would make a lot more sense for these kids.”
A few years later, The Shoe That Grows was born. The simple sandals are made with durable straps that adjust to multiple sizes. The small version of the sandal lasts roughly from kindergarten to fourth grade, and the large version lasts from fourth to ninth grade.
Each pair is designed to last the full five years. “We didn’t cut any corners on materials,” Lee says. “And then it’s just a very simple, functional design.” He collaborated with Proof of Concept, a Portland-based shoe development company, to develop the prototype and bring it to Kenya for testing.
“The kids love them,” he says. “And parents and teachers loved how sturdy it was. Because for many of these kids, even if they do have a shoe that fits, a lot of times it’s a cheap flip flop which kind of falls apart in a few months anyway. Our shoes are so sturdy, that was the biggest feedback we got from the adults.”
Now, Lee works with nonprofit and religious organizations to distribute the shoes around the world. “They can buy the shoes and take it with them as they travel and then essentially be able to hand those out to kids,” he says. “Or people can donate on our website to help fill a duffle with shoes, and once it’s full we’ll send it to a partner organization.”
As the project has gained more attention, the team is also considering selling the shoes in the U.S. “We’ve had interest from people who want to buy them for their kids,” he says. “We’ve even had adults who’ve been asking for adult sizes. “I never thought adults would want to wear these at all–we designed them very specifically for kids in warm weather countries, and definitely designed them with more function than fashion, so I’ve been kind of surprised.”
Ultimately, the project may grow into a one-for-one model to support more donations (though there are many criticisms of this model). Lee believes that the design offers donors a more efficient way to give, especially in rural locations where it’s difficult to bring frequent deliveries. “If someone can donate one pair of shoes that’s going to grow five sizes and last five years, that’s much better than donating a pair of shoes year after year,” he says.