Nike’s annual benefit for Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland is one of the most anticipated of the year—in large part because of what’s being auctioned. Instead of vacation packages, wine tours and the like, the stars of the show are the six patients of the hospital who get to design their own shoes and apparel with Nike designers.
In its 15th year, Doernbecher Freestyle has become one of the most unique fundraisers and a highly anticipated product line in retail. This year’s auction raised $1.36 million, with one collection auctioned off for $40,000. Additionally, proceeds from the program’s 2017 footwear and apparel designs (including a University of Oregon fan gear program) topped out at over $2.6 million. All told, since its first year, the program has raised nearly $24 million for the hospital.
“We do four things at Doernbecher: cutting-edge research and clinical care, and we teach and advocate,” said Dr. Dana Brainer, Doernbecher physician-in-chief. “That funding goes to support all of those programs and makes a big difference.”
A simple idea that took off
The story of how the program started is a surprisingly simple family affair. After joining the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation board of directors in the early 2000s, former Nike creative director Michael Doherty was encouraged to come up with new ideas around fundraising. Doherty’s son Connor, then 14, suggested getting the brand’s designers involved to come up with shoe designs to sell online.
“Listen to your kids, because they might have a $17 million idea,” Doherty told a Design Week Portland crowd in April last year, referencing the amount raised to that point.
Gathering some of his colleagues, Doherty visited the hospital and saw the possibilities. Nike provided six shoe platforms, and the hospital brought six children into the program’s first year. Even Dan Wieden got into the act, offering up the Wieden + Kennedy space for the first auction in 2003 that brought in $60,000.
From there, Nike’s retail team became more involved, ultimately getting the product into Nike retail stores—$1.8 million was raised for the 2016 Nike Freestyle collection—and further amplifying the program’s scope. In Portland, the crowds became bigger (the auction outgrew the W+K space quickly) and the sneakerhead community started highly anticipating the launch of the new line.
“The best part of the program is the engagement of the kids and the fact that their designs, every year, are their own story,” said Doherty at this year’s gala held at Nike’s World Headquarters. “And because of that, it’s a unique collection.”
Indeed, the six patients chosen each year by Doernbecher (the program has served 91, including this year’s class) bring a great deal of enthusiasm for their projects. The process is very much hands-on, intensive, collaborative and involves the patient every step of the way. In essence, the kids are the “clients” and are provided high-level design teams to see their vision through to the final product.
It’s also a highly sought after assignment for Nike employees.
“Every year, I get emails from people I’ve never met at the company asking to participate,” said Lee Banks, the Nike footwear product director who has helped lead the Nike Freestyle program with Doernbecher since its first year. “That’s truly humbling, and it’s an honor to know that everybody who touches this program sees the benefit in such a positive way.”
A symbol of hope and expression
But the most significant impact of Freestyle is what it instills in the kids: hope and a sense of creative control when certain parts of their own lives can feel lost. Personal stories, symbolism and expression are woven into the designs creating a compelling and uplifting narrative.
Chloe Swientek, a 10-year-old cystic fibrosis patient, used a mainly blue color palette to symbolize air with the word “breathe” as a prominent part of her Air Force 1 Low design. Additionally, she included her parents’ genetic codes (cystic fibrosis is a genetic lung disease) on the shoe’s tongues. A set of lungs is the custom logo that also anchors the design on her footwear and apparel.
By the end of the process, Swientek was inspired by her team and hinted that a design career may be in her future. “I learned it’s hard to make a shoe, but I liked it a lot [because] I was working with such cool people,” she said. “I also learned that people are kind in so many ways and that inspiration can pop from anywhere.”
Working with a Nike Zoom Fly SP shoe, the theme for 12-year-old Payton Fentress was baseball and, more specifically, the Chicago Cubs (his father is from Chicago). A baseball player himself, Fentress—who’s being treated for Crohn’s Disease and colitis at Doernbecher—also used Michael Jackson as inspiration.
“When I was little, I may or may not have put on costumes to dance to his music,” he said.
His colorful designs also have unique design touches, including baseball stitching and important sports dates: the years his beloved Cubs won the World Series and the Portland Trail Blazers won their lone NBA championship. But what stood out even more was the bright glitter under the brim of the hat in his collection that recalled Jackson’s heyday in the 1980s.
But it’s the impact of his work that excited Fentress the most.
“Freestyle means a lot to me because I get to raise money not just for myself, but for the other kids at Doernbecher,” he said.
A sneakerhead paradise
The next steps for the program are always evolving, but this year marked the first time that brands outside of Nike participated—with Salesforce and 3M as primary sponsors. Additionally, retail remains a strong component of growth. The brand’s external partners play a crucial role in sales, with 100 percent of the profits funneling back to Doernbecher.
But to Banks, the sneakerhead community’s reception has been one of the most welcome developments over the years.
“I’ve been impressed with how much they’ve adopted this program,” he said. “They really look forward to it every year, and I think that’s what’s led to a lot of its success.”
“For sneakerheads, there’s always going to be the initial buzz about what specific silhouettes are getting special colorways that year, but it’s the cause and awareness that counts,” Joe La Puma, Complex’s vp of content, told Nike. “It usually has an instant-classic special makeup every year, and the fact that kids from the hospital design these rare sneakers adds actual substance to the hype.”
Indeed, the impact is felt far and wide, and all—from footwear aficionados to those involved in the program and beyond—never lose sight of the Nike Freestyle mission.
“There’s the direct difference you make in the lives of six kids every year,” said Banks. “But it’s also the thousands of kids a year at Doernbecher that get helped by this program, and then the millions of kids a year that benefit from the research that gets funded by this program.”
This year’s collection launches Dec. 14 on Nike’s SNKRS app and Dec. 15 on Nike’s website, as well as select Nike retail and partner stores. To learn more about the six Doernbecher patients and their designs, visit the Nike News website.