By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

Editor’s note: Since this story was published, 900 Girl Scouts selected the Shoe that Grows as their reward, donating a total of 523 pairs to this Kenyan school and far surpassing the chapter’s 120 pair goal.

Samoas and shoes. What do they have in common? Very little, actually, but a group of ambitious and forward-thinking Girl Scouts in Central Indiana are out to change that.

Since early January, as they do every year, the Girl Scouts have been selling cookies. Lots of them. In Central Indiana, about 29,000 Scouts in 45 counties have been peddling their snacks and fulfilling our guilty pleasures. On average last year, each girl sold 184 boxes.

As the cookie season winds down, however, a first-of-its-kind project by the local council, the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana, is about to ramp up.

Traditionally, the girls and their troops earn group and individual rewards for being top cookie-sellers. By the end of this month, girls can select prizes, such as stuffed animals, sleeping bags, theme park tickets or trips with other scouts.

This year, however, the girls can earn shoes. Not pairs of splashy tennies or the latest Doc Martens. These shoes they earn aren’t for them, but for kids in Kenya.

Local Scouts will have the opportunity to forgo personal prizes and do something altruistic. Each Scout who sells at least 125 boxes may donate her “prize” to the cause. The reward for 125 boxes is equivalent to a half shoe to a Kenyan elementary student. As the number of boxes increases, so does the number of donated shoes.

These are, however, not ordinary shoes. These are Shoes that Grow, the brainchild of the nonprofit organization Because International. The shoes are adjustable and can accommodate five size changes. The shoes will be given to students at the Hope School, which is outside several small villages in northern Kenya. For kids in this African country, having shoes that fit — or even shoes at all — is not a given.

Ellen Winking, the vice president of membership and “cookie manager” at Girl Scouts of Central Indiana, heard about the program on a national news program and spent last summer conversing with local girls about this as a rewards option.

To help Girl Scouts understand how this unique footwear works, Winking used both an actual pair and a video to demonstrate. Both were supplied by Idaho-based Because International, which distributes simple, innovative products to help make daily life easier for people living in poverty.

The video shared the story of a 12-year-old girl in Haiti who could not attend school simply because she had no shoes. For local girls, it was an opportunity to learn that schooling could be denied for not having shoes.

Buoyed by the girls’ interest, Winking contacted Kenton Lee, founder of Because International, to discuss the possibility of offering the shoes as a reward, and the nonprofit staff agreed to give it a try.

“I was excited when they approached us with this idea, and we kind of brainstormed to see if it could fit. The partnership with the council is really unique, and I’m really looking forward to see what transpires. If it works, it definitely is something that I would encourage other similar groups to think about doing,” said Lee from his office in Nampa, Idaho.

This Central Indiana Girl Scout council’s goal for this year’s annual cookie program is to provide 120 pairs of shoes for students at a particular elementary school in Kenya. A part of the Girl Scouts’ training model is for each girl to self-identify a personal and troop goal for cookie sales.

“Adding the shoe is a slightly different twist because girls are forgoing a prize to do this good for others,” said Danielle Shockey, Central Indiana Girl Scouts’ CEO.

According to Lee, 400 kids attend the school in Kenya, but those are just the kids who have the ability to go to school. 

“There are even poorer kids, who live out in the rural areas surrounding the school. I would also like to give to local leaders extra pairs of shoes so as they identify more kids that don’t go to the school that they’d be able to help them by providing shoes if that’s a need that they have,” he said.

The Girl Scouts’ national office said while other troops have provided funds for causes like saving sea turtles, Central Indiana’s council is the first to offer this type of philanthropic reward option.

“I’m really excited about this opportunity with them,” said Lee. “This is a first. We’ve had other kids do more classic fundraising — lemonade stands, yard sales, mowing lawns or using their birthday — as fundraisers.”

Proper footwear, according to Lee, is a critical way of reducing the risk of injury, parasitic diseases and foot infections in Third World countries. For many, it is a necessary part of a school uniform. But, he knows, it doesn’t solve every problem.

“It is a very simple thing. But even a small thing, even something that doesn’t solve the entire situation, still makes a big difference,” he said. Lee estimates there are over 300 million children who do not have shoes, and countless more with shoes that do not fit. Sometimes they receive shoe donations, but children’s feet grow and they quickly outgrow donated shoes.

After attending Northwest Nazarene University, Lee thought he was destined to be a missionary. But since his religion requires a three-year commitment in the field, he traveled for a year, ultimately working in an orphanage in Kenya for six months in 2007 as a way to test his future path.

During a walk with children at the orphanage, he noticed one girl whose shoes didn’t fit, which sparked an idea that he jotted in his journal. Homesick, he returned to Idaho, but his idea percolated.

“It really was just kind of a random idea that popped into my head just based on the situation, based on the context,” Lee said. “You know the orphanage couldn’t afford to buy the kids any new shoes, and yet their feet were always growing. And then from that point, I had an idea for a growing shoe, but I had no idea how to make it happen. That’s what took the six years.”

First he tried and failed at designing a prototype. He tried to give the idea away, but after multiple rejections from shoe companies, he found a small shoe-design company in Portland, Oregon.

“They loved what we were trying to do and took us through about a yearlong design process. Then we made about 100 prototype pairs that my wife and I took back to Kenya and put in four different schools,” Lee said. “We had kids try them out for about a year, got some really good feedback, and then we made our first official batch of the Shoe that Grows. It was essentially just a hobby at that point. I had a few thousand pairs in my guest bedroom, and I tried to get them out to people I knew working with kids. It was just kind of a small part of my life at that point.”

Now, the shoe is in 100 countries, mainly near the equator including parts of Central America, through sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa, and a bit of Asia. Overall, the nonprofit has distributed almost 250,000 pairs in the last four years and has worked with over 1,500 partner groups or distribution partners to deliver those shoes.

To simplify distribution, the Because International has begun to identify factories closer to the need. Right now a Kenyan factory is working to produce a sample. If all goes according to plan in 2019, the shoes for the Kenyan school will be made at that factory in Mombasa and shipped to Nairobi. Haiti and Ethiopia also have manufacturing plants.

Lee said his organization doesn’t attach any strings to the shoes for either the recipients or the donors. Recipients are not required to send thank yous or Skype with the donors.

“Above all else what we want is for the local people — the leaders and the kids receiving the shoes — is for the shoes to be a benefit to them and be a valuable resource. But if the Girl Scouts want to make contact with the school and vice versa, we’re happy to make the connection.”

Besides sending shoes to Kenya, girls who select the shoe reward will receive a patch, which includes the Shoe that Grows logo, a heart designed from a footprint. For Girl Scouts earning patches and badges for successfully completing requirements is something of honor.

For the Girl Scouts, philanthropy certainly is not new. CEO Danielle Shockey, herself a Girl Scout alumna, said it’s embedded in everything the organization does.

“Philanthropy is really just part of our DNA, and the whole idea of making the world better place is our mission statement. I’ve never met a troop who doesn’t think about some kind of community service project,” and the cookie program provides troops with annual funds to be able to do this. At the younger levels, girls think about how to give back to the local community, and as they get older, they begin to think about the world around them.

According to a study at Arizona State University, altruistic children do grow up to be altruistic adults.

Since 2009, the Girl Scouts in Central Indiana have been involved in Operation: Cookie Drop. Customers are asked if they would like to purchase additional boxes to be distributed to soldiers stationed at military bases across Central Indiana, to military veterans and for the first time this year, to local first responders. Last year, the scouts delivered 96,000 boxes to Stout Field to military families.

“They are really glad to meet the girls and physically move the boxes together. We are purposefully making sure that they’re seeing the effort and the result. I think we do some very deliberate things, as much as it is a part of the things that they earn and their badges and the gold awards, we also want it to be intrinsic too,” said Shockey, who became CEO in January 2018.

Both Lee’s nonprofit, Because International, and Girl Scouts working to earn a Gold Award have a goal of solving societal problems.

In the case of Because International, they have expanded efforts and now have a mosquito net called Net Buddy for distribution in countries where malaria is a health concern. Lee, the founder, is also working with a colleague on a new program, the Pursuit Incubator, to help other entrepreneurs pursue ideas for products. The group’s efforts revolve around using small innovative products to fight poverty.

And as Girl Scouts stay with the organization and reach their teens, they have the option to earn a Gold Award, the organization’s highest award. Last year, locally about 30 girls achieved the Gold Award.

“To earn the Gold Award, a girl must find a community challenge where she thinks she can make a difference. So when we say it’s part of our DNA, girls are constantly thinking about the world around and how they can make it a better place and it manifests itself differently. Troops think about it, girls think about it and also if they want to have our highest award, they have to think about it in a very big way.”

Shockey shared the example of a Zionsville sophomore’s project. She saw the documentary about Holocaust survivor Eva Kor; and her message of forgiveness touched this 15-year-old teen.

“Soon after there was the school shooting in Noblesville and she thought my community really needs this message of forgiveness,” said Shockey. “And they needed to hear it directly from Kor.”

So working with her school superintendent, she planned two programs. At one, Kor would speak to middle- and high-school students, and offer a similar program in the evening at a local church. The proceeds from the 500 tickets sold were donated to Zionsville’s Lunch Angel Fund, a program that pays off student lunch deficits and provides needy students with extras they cannot afford.

The teen didn’t stop there, Shockey said, because she wanted a sustainable program.

“So she worked with WFYI to build education kits about the Holocaust. Now every history teacher in Zionsville has a Holocaust kit to use with future students,” said Shockey.

The leaders really walk the talk of girls leading the way, and so they will wait to see how successful and how popular it is before making additional plans and connections.

“Did girls make it part of their goals? I think at the end of this year, it will be pretty telling. Take Operation Cookie Drop that started over 10 years ago. It’s now 96,000 packages,” said Deana Potterf, the chief communications officer. Who could have imagined.

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