Three years ago, Kyler Nipper ended up in an emergency room in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after several middle-school classmates bullied him about his worn-out shoes while he was on his way to biology class. One of the boys stabbed him multiple times in the chest and shoulder with a sharp pencil, puncturing his lung.
Kyler, then 11 and in sixth grade, was hospitalized with a breathing tube for three days and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome because of the incident, said his mother, Sherise Nipper. She and her husband, Nick Nipper, a chef, pulled him out of school and arranged for him to be home-schooled. Kyler had a few coping ideas of his own.
The boy accused of stabbing Kyler was arrested, suspended from school and later put on probation for one year with an ankle monitor, she said.
Before the incident, Kyler said he had been teased and bullied because he walked on his tiptoes due to a condition known as idiopathic toe walking. Shorter-than-normal Achilles tendons prevented his heels from touching the ground.
"Because his shoes would bend in half from walking on his toes, they were always bunching up and cracking," Sherise Nipper said. "We'd get him new ones, and they'd wear out in weeks. Because his shoes were always trashy, some kids decided to tease him about it."
A few days before he was attacked in the hallway, Kyler realized there must be other kids who were bullied for not having nice shoes.
"At my school, shoes were a really big deal," he said. "You had to have a certain kind of athletic shoes to be cool, like Air Jordans or shoes designed by rappers. Mine were black and white tennis shoes from Walmart."
He wanted to do something to help other people who were being bullied or feeling ashamed about having shabby shoes.
About a week after the incident, he decided to put a shoe donation box outside his family's apartment. He then received permission from several stores in Colorado Springs to put out large cardboard boxes to collect new and gently used shoes from customers.
"Kyler's Kicks," he wrote on each box. "Please donate shoes for those in need."
Over the next four months, so many people donated, Sherise Nipper said, that a local business donated the use of a party bus so she and Kyler could drive around low-income neighborhoods once a month. Families would hop aboard the bus and pick out whatever kind of shoes they desired.
In March 2017, the Nippers became homeless when they could no longer afford to pay rent on their apartment because of all of their medical bills. "There were just too many to keep up with," Sherise Nipper said.
She and her husband decided to move their family to Las Vegas to get a fresh start. They now rent a studio apartment in a community for homeless veterans and their families, which they qualify for because they have a relative who is a war veteran.
After the move, Kyler decided it was important to keep his shoe effort going, even though his family was continuing to have financial troubles. Kyler's Kicks has since collected and given out more than 25,000 pairs of shoes - mostly to at-risk children, teenagers and homeless people in Las Vegas.
Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation and Zappos for Good are among the partnerships that now donate shoes to his cause.
"I'm so proud and impressed with his work in the community," said Maya Smith, executive director of Born This Way Foundation. "Young people like Kyler are the key to building a kinder, braver world for us all."
Smith, who is based in San Francisco, takes several suitcases filled with new and gently used shoes to Kyler whenever she visits Las Vegas.
At Whitney Elementary School, one of three schools where Kyler regularly restocks a "Kyler's Closet" with dozens of new shoes, students are grateful, said Linda LaHodny, a social worker who recently retired.
She recalled one student who came in to get new shoes after another student had been making fun of her.
"She walked back to class wearing not only her new shoes, but a big smile on her face like she'd just won the lottery," LaHodny said.
At the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, director of development Heather Williams regularly hands out several dozen pairs of shoes from Kyler's Kicks with evening meals, she said.
"Watching Kyler start his giveaways here about two years ago and seeing him grow into a determined young man who exudes a passion for helping others has been quite amazing," Williams said.
Now 14, Kyler said he devotes about five hours a day to Kyler's Kicks, which he fits in between his home studies. He cleans many of the shoes himself before giving them away.
"It makes me feel amazing, and it's helping to heal my PTSD," he said.
Before he was stabbed, Kyler had been taunted by a small group of kids for more than a year about his shoes and appearance, Sherise Nipper said.
Kyler had recently had orthopedic surgery to correct his "tiptoeing," said his mother, and he was wearing casts on his feet at the time of the pencil attack on Oct. 7, 2016.
"He couldn't even defend himself because of the casts," she said. "Then, just days after we brought him home from the hospital, he developed PTSD."
Although Kyler received counseling after the incident, he said his real therapy now comes from seeing strangers' faces light up when he offers them new pairs of shoes.
Not long ago, he said, he was walking down the street, and he saw a barefooted man who looked homeless. Kyler figured he and the man had the same size feet, so he slid off his own shoes and gave them to the man. They both walked away happy, Kyler said. And that's what keeps him going.
"It's the best feeling ever," he said.
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