For more than two billion people in the world, shoes are not a fashion statement, but a medical necessity.
Hardest hit are the 300 million kids worldwide who don’t own any shoes at all because extreme poverty makes it impossible for families to buy new ones as children outgrow an old pair. These children are exposed to infections and parasites that live in the soil they step on barefoot, they’re subjected to painful swelling, deformities of the limbs, and damage to vital organs.
A good pair of shoes can change all of that—and a great pair can last for five years, growing up to five sizes as the child gets older and grows, too.
Shoes That Grow are specifically designed to be durable enough to last half a decade: the upper part of the sandal is made from thick, high-grade leather, and the soles are made of compressed rubber, similar to that used in car tires, successfully protecting vulnerable feet from disease.
The idea came to founder Kenton Lee while he was taking a year off after college and working at an orphanage in Africa. While walking with some of the kids, he looked down and noticed a little girl’s feet.
“Her shoes were just way too small, so she had to cut open the front of her shoes to let her toes stick out,” he said. “Walking around, with scratches or cuts on their bare feet, they’re getting infections or diseases entering their body through their feet.”
Worse still, many of those children don’t have access to medical care, so when they get sick, they “stay sick for a long time.” This causes them to miss school and fall behind in what Lee called “a heartbreaking cycle.”
“This special shoe is essentially an advanced sandal, using straps, snaps, and expandable parts to ‘grow’ over time,” he explained.
The shoes cost about $15 a pair, and Because International takes donations to fill deliveries. The organization encourages a variety of charitable groups to fundraise with them and promotes “voluntourism” — everyday people bringing shoes with them when they travel to developing countries — to deliver shoes where they’re needed.
“We have over 2,000 children in our free primary schools, most who were not able to attend a government school because they had no shoes,” said Sandra Levinson of the Alliance for Children Everywhere, who partnered with the nonprofit to bring shoes to children overseas.
Another group, the Tanzania Maasai School Initiative, backed a pair of travel enthusiasts who took along more than 100 of the shoes for a volunteer teaching trip to a school in the West African bush.
“There is nothing more fulfilling than bringing genuine joy to an underprivileged child,” the group posted on Facebook after delivering their first 60 pairs, enough for every student at the school.
Since 2014, Because International and its partners have distributed more than 50,000 pairs of The Shoe That Grows to kids in 70 countries. Instead of the traditional shoebox, each pair is delivered in a drawstring backpack, which kids can use as a book bag for school.
Lee has gone along on trips delivering shoes to schools and villages in Kenya, Malawi, and Nicaragua.
“It’s always a little surreal to actually see this happening in real life,” Lee said. “Every time I go and see it first hand, it motivates me a little more.”
The goal now is to produce the shoes in the countries where they’ll be distributed, creating jobs there. They plan to start producing the shoes in Ethiopia and Haiti by the end of next year.
In the meantime, the nonprofit is already looking at other products that can improve lives in developing countries, and has developed a prototype “Bed Net Buddy,” designed to protect kids from birth to five-years-old from disease-carrying mosquitos.
Unlike traditional mosquito nets that have to hang from a ceiling hook and drape over a bed, this iteration is freestanding — working like a pop-up tent. It collapses into a small size so parents can take it with them when they are working outside the house.
“For kids, it’s more like a game than a medical device to protect them from malaria,” Lee said. “It’s a fun, little pop-up tent they can crawl into and sleep in.”
Simple things like shoes and improved mosquito netting can help change lives as much of a difference for people in extreme poverty as big projects like water treatment plants — just in different ways.
“As an organization,” Lee said, “we try to focus on what we call ‘the small things that make a big difference.’”
And it all started with a little girl at an orphanage, and Lee’s empathy to “walk a mile in her shoes.”Share this article: