Chloe Swientek, 10 years old, stands in the middle of a white studio backdrop in Beaverton, Oregon. The cystic fibrosis patient is instructed by Nike designers and staff from Portland’s OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital to reach out both hands and to close her eyes. Around the corner, a Nike designer walks out, holding a special pair of shoes: a purple and blue Nike Air Force 1, designed by Chloe herself as part of the Doernbecher Freestyle program. The designer gently sets the shoes in Chloe’s hands. This photo shoot is the first time Chloe and the five other young Doernbecher patients will get to see shoes that they designed. She squeezes her eyes shut, freckles dotted across her face. She can barely keep back a giant smile.
15 years ago, former Nike creative director Michael Doherty followed through on a vision from his son, Connor: what if Doernbecher patients could design their own Nike shoes, working alongside Nike designers and developer teams, and then donate the proceeds to the hospital?
The evolution of that idea – what is now Doernbecher Freestyle, wherein each year, six hospital patients design a Nike silhouette and apparel – has raised nearly $20 million for Doernbecher, contributing to new treatments and better care for kids by advancing medical research and supporting the work of pediatric specialists. It’s also earned a devoted following in the sneaker community.
The biggest impact of Freestyle, though, can’t be measured in dollar signs or by a stethoscope: it brings back hope for the kids, and instills a sense of creative control when agency over their own lives can feel lost.
“In some ways, I think a program like Freestyle can be more powerful to the healing process than medicine itself,” says Dana Braner, M.D., chair and professor of pediatrics, and physician-in-chief at OHSU Doernbecher. “Nike’s ability to rally excitement and support for our kids and their families creates a sense of hope and community that can be more important to a young child than any number of doctors or nurses. Doernbecher Freestyle is a result of a ton of good forces coming together at the right time and place for these kids.”