Finding Their Momentum

Freestyle designer Autumn Boynton

In year nine of the amazing Doernbecher Freestyle program, six young patients make their mark designing limited-edition Nike footwear to support the hospital that changed their lives. 

In January 2011 Chad Berg took a spill in his kayak and spent 90 minutes in icy water near his hometown of Albany, Oregon. By the time he was rescued, the 15-year-old was in full cardiac arrest with no pulse and a body temperature of 73 degrees. Essentially, he was lifeless.

Chad’s medical team quickly transferred him to OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, where experts in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) put him on a sophisticated machine that could do the work of his heart and lungs while he recovered. Incredibly, after two weeks at Doernbecher, Chad was back in action with no neurological damage at all.

“There are simply no words for our gratitude,” said Chad’s mom, Kaye Berg, who credits the expertise and enthusiasm of Doernbecher’s PICU team for her son’s rapid recovery. “Our experience proves that good things can come from hard things.”

Nike's Tony Miller and Mark Dolce with Chad BergIt’s easy to find out what Chad himself learned from the experience because it’s printed on the insole of the Nike sneaker that the high school sophomore designed as a participant in the 2012 Doernbecher Freestyle program. Here it is: The people who turn out the best are those people who make the best out of the way things turn out.

That motto defines not just the medical journeys of the six special young people selected this year to anchor Doernbecher Freestyle. It also describes the unique and extraordinary program itself.

A partnership to change the game

Doernbecher Freestyle was born in 2003 when Michael Doherty, Nike Inc.’s creative director of global brand presentations and a longtime board member of the Doernbecher Foundation, was pitched a wild idea by his son, Connor. Connor thought Nike should create a custom shoe honoring Doernbecher patients. Doherty was intrigued, and it wasn’t long before the idea evolved into the program we know today – an empowering opportunity for courageous Doernbecher kids to express themselves in a totally unique way while experiencing the thrill of helping others.

In nine years the program has featured 51 young designers and deeply involved their families, as well as thousands of Nike and Doernbecher employees and associates – all while raising more than $5 million to advance the Doernbecher cause on a worldwide stage.

“The power of this partnership is beyond calculation,” said Stacy Nicholson, M.D., M.P.H., Physician-in-Chief of Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “It showcases inspiring kids whose experiences highlight Doernbecher’s strengths, and it brings their stories to the world. Nike set out to turn shoe buyers into Doernbecher donors and advocates – and for that vision, we are profoundly grateful.”

For Nike’s employees, that sense of gratitude is mutual, and it’s felt by the thousands of team members who are involved in the Freestyle project each year.

“Freestyle is one of the very best things we do,” said Adam Welliver, a Nike footwear developer who worked with 2012 participant Finnigan Mooney, who at age 10 has toughed out 13 heart surgeries at Doernbecher while maintaining his signature sunny attitude. “All of us – from designers to suppliers – get personally invested in helping these kids express themselves through the shoes they design. We work for them.”

Paying it forward

For the designers and their families, nothing beats being able to give back in such a meaningful and positive way to the hospital that changed their lives.

Kylie Bell with Nike's Ashley Low and mom, Julie“I feel so emotional about our family’s experience,” said Julie Martineau, mother of 16-year-old Freestyle designer Kylie Bell, who underwent life-saving neurosurgery at Doernbecher. “The doctors and nurses make everything amazing. They took care of everyone in our family, not just our daughter. To have an opportunity to pay that back in such a positive way is a real blessing.”

Kylie, who thinks she may want to be a neonatal nurse practitioner when she gets older, agrees that giving back is great, and doing it through Freestyle has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I just love to see people’s reactions when I tell them I designed a Nike shoe! Please go buy mine today!”