In 2003, Michael Doherty, Nike’s Creative Director, Global Brand Presentation, was having a conversation with his son, Connor. He had just joined the board at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation, and was tasked with finding ways to raise visibility and support for the Oregon-based hospital. Connor’s suggestion? To engage the imagination of the hospital’s young patients by having them design their own sneakers with Nike.
The result was the foundation of the Doernbecher Freestyle program which, 13 years on, has raised more than $14 million for the hospital.
“Everybody who works on Doernbecher Freestyle understands how meaningful the program is and that it makes a huge difference to the families involved, as well as the hospital at large,” says Doherty. “What’s most amazing for me is that when I look at the shoes and apparel, I can see the individual kids and their personalities in the product. Each piece is so true, so authentic, to the kids that they begin to be known to the consumer by the patient-designer’s name.”
For 2016, the Doernbecher Freestyle patient-designers are Corwin Carr (12), Andy Grass (11), Chehayla Hyatt (10), Damien Phillips (10), Braylin Soon (10) and Chase Swearingen (14). Their respective shoes will debut on October 28 at a special gala commemorating the kids’ strength, spirit, creativity and the product — the fruits of almost a year of whirlwind of activity.
Here’s how program unfolds:
December 2015: Nominations for the Doernbecher Freestyle program are submitted by OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital, kicking off the 11-month process.
February 2016: OHSU Doernbecher delivers its list of six select patient-designers to Nike. From there, Nike taps its team for volunteers across footwear design, apparel design and product development.
Nike then sends a questionnaire to each kid to help paint a picture of his or her personality — this includes everything from ‘What sports do you play?’ to ‘What does your ideal day look like?’ to ‘Who’s your favorite superhero?’ Their answers inform which design team and style — selected from across Nike’s main categories — is assigned to each patient-designer. For example, Damien Phillips, a Terrebonne, Oregon native who’s being treated for hemophilia A severe, revealed his favorite basketball player, which led to the consideration of a new silhouette for Doernbecher Freestyle.
Patient-designers working on a signature athlete shoe isn’t out of the ordinary. Jordan participated for the first time in 2007, while 2013 marked the start of Stefan Janoski’s support. Janoski’s participation was fitting, as the program started under Nike SB before expanding to not only include more styles, but apparel as well, which also began in 2013.
March 2016: The Nike design team meets with the kids at the hospital for the first time. There, the designers give each kid blank line art of different types of clothes to sketch out their initial ideas.
“When [Chase] first started the process, we sat him down and had him list his interests: building toys, country music, wildlife, lighthouses,” recall the parents of Chase Swearingen, a Jewell, Oregon local who was diagnosed with epilepsy and hydrocephalus. “He went into his room and came out with an idea of the lighthouse with the Nike swoosh being the light beam!”
April 2016: The patient-designers and Nike reconvene at Nike HQ to begin refining their vision. As Nike doesn’t script the interactions, the amount of meetings they have is completely up to the kids and their families.
“I imagined [the designers would] be a lot more strict, like mom and dad. But they were like big kids. I asked for some really crazy things and they never told me no,” says Corwin Carr, a patient-designer from Hood River, Oregon being treated for VATERS Syndrome and Prune Belly.
Recalling the meetings, the parents of Portland’s Braylin Soon, who’s being treated for autoimmune hepatitis and a liver transplant, note: “The team really listened to what Braylin wanted. They celebrated Braylin’s outgoing personality and joy for life and made her feel like any design idea was welcome.”
“My favorite part of the process was choosing the shoe’s material,” says Phillips.
June 2016: The names of the six patient-designers are announced to the public, midway through the all-encompassing design and production process.
September 2016: The designs are finalized, and each patient-designer gets a first look at the product.
“The first time I saw my shoe it was really weird but cool at the same time! I was kind of jumpy!” says Chehayla Hyatt, a Salem, Oregon native who’s being treated for cystic fibrosis.
The kids also participate in a photo shoot with their collections.
“Wearing the clothes at the photo shoot was my favorite part of the process,” says Braylin Soon, “I never imagined myself doing that, modeling my own designs.”
October 2016: Nike and the patient-designers are days away from revealing their one-of-a-kind collections to the public. On October 28, Nike and OHSU Doernbecher will host the Doernbecher Freestyle XIII unveiling and auction at the Portland Art Museum.
From there, the process wraps up. After the pieces undergo a final sample review in early November, they hit the market during the holiday season.
While fun seems to be the most apparent underlying theme of the whole process, life-changing would describe it as well.
Notes Andy Grass, a patient from Beaverton, Oregon who is overcoming multiple injuries following a traumatic beach accident: “Designing the shoe has helped me talk to my family more about the accident and I think it is important to share our feelings like that.”
Not only does the program provide joy, comfort, and hope on the road to recovery for the patients, but their parents as well.
“It was a beautiful distraction from all the day to day overwhelming worries,” recall Corwin’s parents. “Because Corwin lives in two homes so much of our time as mom and dad and stepdad is spent discussing schedules, sleep schedule, bathroom schedule, school schedule, doctor appointments, medical refills, overall health for the day. It was so nice to have something to giggle about and share with each other.”
In a patient-designer’s own words, the spirit of the Doernbecher Freestyle program is perfectly encapsulated.
“I just want kids in the hospital to know that I know what they feel, and no matter what is happening to them, I want them to know that I pray for them, even though I don’t know them,” says Grass. “That’s why this program is so important to me. It helps me give back to Doernbecher so they can help those kids.”