RICHLAND — When you look down at Kahleah Corona’s feet, you will notice something different about her multi-hued sneakers.
The custom Nikes tell a story of the 11-year-old Richland girl’s life.
There’s the first initial of each of her siblings, her love for her mom and a tribute to her dad’s union job.
There’s her favorite emojis — cool face and heart-eyes face — and a specially created one for slime, the squishy gunk.
And then there is a little pink brain.
In August 2017, Kahleah was left with life-threatening injuries from a head-on crash in Oregon. She suffered a traumatic brain injury.
After countless days at Oregon Health & Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital over the following year, she was nominated by a doctor to design her own Nike shoe and apparel.
“When we found out she was chosen for the Nike Freestyle, Kahleah was screaming and jumping and everybody just joined in,” said her mother, Irma Corona.
The Doernbecher Freestyle program, now in its 16th year, allows kids to work with Nike design and development teams on a collection that might inspire others facing challenges, and to watch their creations auctioned to the highest bidder.
The money from the auction, and all shoe and apparel sales, goes to the Portland hospital to continue caring for future young patients and their families.
Kahleah and five other patient-designers from the Pacific Northwest — known collectively as The Super Six — participated in the 2019 program. She is the only one from Eastern Washington.
“Working with the Nike designers was fun, amazing and a blast,” said Kahleah. “Nike Freestyle is fun because I get to show all my emotions and fun things onto my shoe.”
Kahleah’s Collection, revealed earlier this month, went for about $11,000 at auction along with a couple autographed sports collector’s items.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson signed her sneakers and gave her an autographed Nike football to include in her box. And she also received a video shout-out from Olympic gold-medal gymnast Gabrielle Douglas and a signed copy of her book.
Now, on Dec. 7, Kahleah’s one-of-a-kind gear will be available to the general public in a limited run.
A special tag inside the clothes reads: “Engineered to the exact specifications of Kahleah.”
At just 11 years old, Kahleah gets to see the sneakers, zip-up hoodie and tights that she poured her heart and soul into featured on Nike’s website.
Her version of the React Element 55 sneaker will sell for $130.
Irma Corona said while it will sell as a men’s shoe, it actually is unisex and women just need to subtract 1.5 from the size to figure their size. The clothing will come in women’s sizes.
Kahleah was 9 when she was thrown from a car in a head-on collision with a semi truck. She was wearing her seat belt but it broke on impact.
Her head made contact with the semi. Her siblings all had minor injuries.
Kahleah had numerous broken bones in her face and a skull fracture, and suffered innumerable strokes as her brain was hemorrhaging. Doctors told her family she may never talk, walk, see or hear again.
But Kahleah persevered.
She spent two months in Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and has had nine head surgeries to date.
A part of her skull initially was removed, requiring her to wear a helmet, and she now has a synthetic skull on the left side. She still struggles with short-term memory loss and learning.
“My heroes are my mom and my dad and brothers and sisters because they never left my side and were with me, and that’s why I’m here today,” said Kahleah. “Doernbecher is very important to me because they saved my life. They are my heroes and they’ll forever be my friends.”
Kahleah was nominated to be a shoe designer with the Doernbecher Freestyle program by her pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Lissa Baird.
Baird said Kahleah faced a challenging recovery through multiple major neurosurgical operations.
“Kahleah maintained a positive attitude through all of it and worked really, really hard to get where she is today,” she said. “She’s come a long way and she’s a really amazing person, and I’m really excited to see what she does with her shoe design.”
Designing her shoe
Kahleah made a number of trips to different Nike locations in Portland over the year, and parents Irma Corona and Doug Knisley always made sure to keep it separate from her doctor visits at Doernbecher.
Kahleah was told she would get to design a React Element 55 sneaker, and spent hours and hours at home working on ideas before her first big visit to Nike’s Beaverton campus.
That trip, she sat in a library filled with every imaginable color swatch and material.
The design and development teams soon found out that Kahleah loves all colors, but her favorite is glitter.
While recovering at Doernbecher, her family always had colorful items in Kahleah’s room and her siblings would create doodles to keep her day bright and happy.
Kahleah wanted that to reflect in her collection, so that she might brighten someone else’s day. She also added in some flair of her love for mermaids.
“They really worked hard to give her the image that she had, the dream that she had, everything she wanted on that shoe,” said Irma Corona, who described it as an amazing blessing.