When the stress feels too overwhelming for Kyler Nipper, 14, he relies on a unique coping mechanism: Cleaning shoes. Nipper has post-traumatic stress disorder, which he developed after a bully stabbed him with a pencil when he was just 11 years old. Instead of focusing on anger or self-pity, he started a nonprofit to give shoes to those in need.
“I’m healing through kindness and turning something bad into something good,” Kyler, of Las Vegas, told TODAY Parents.
Over the past three years, Kyler has handed out 26,561 pairs of shoes through Kyler’s Kicks. He’s currently creating the Kyler’s Kicks Lounge, a walk-in center for teens who might need access to mental health care and life skills training. He's received donations from Zappos and the Born This Way Foundation for his work. While he’s discovered that thinking of others soothes his PTSD symptoms, he also wants to raise awareness about the need for mental health care and importance of preventing bullying.
“We can all make a difference,” he said.
Three years ago, though, Kyler was in a very different place. The middle schooler had idiopathic toe walking, which gave him an unusual tiptoe gait.
“I have a deformation in my feet. It causes my shoes to break really fast. Kids used to bully me,” Kyler said. “My shoes weren’t cool enough.”
The students in Colorado Springs, Colorado mocked him constantly for a year. They’d tell him he should live in a trash bin because of his shoes looked like garbage. Every day, he cried. While his parents, Sherise and Nick Nipper, wanted to help, buying loads of shoes became expensive and impractical. They talked to the school, they said, but nothing changed. Kyler tried being strong but on October 7, 2016, Sherise Nipper received a phone call that changed everything.
“All I heard was ‘Your child has been stabbed in the hallway,’” she told TODAY. “He was blue in the face by the time we got there. It was devastating. I felt like my world was crashing down.”
The pencil went through Kyler’s shoulder and chest and punctured his right lung and he developed a hemothorax, pooling blood between his lung and chest wall. He underwent emergency surgery and needed a breathing tube for three days. While Kyler’s physical wounds healed, he has been grappling with PTSD since. But a gift of shoes inspired him.
“One of my friends gave me a nice pair of shoes and I liked how it felt, he said. “I wanted to spread kindness.”
Just a few days after his stabbing, Kyler started collecting shoes and called it Kyler’s Kicks. Now, people ship shoes to him or he collects shoes at stores around Las Vegas, where he now lives. The family moved to the city after experiencing homelessness when medical bills made it impossible to pay rent.
“We live in emergency housing because of the (continued medical) costs,” Nipper explained.
Shoes are therapeutic for Kyler. Nipper recalls a time at the grocery store when Kyler’s PTSD symptoms overwhelmed him. He calmed himself by giving his shoes to a homeless person. Grasping a pair of shoes in his hands and brushing them clean eases his mind after the nightmares wake him.
“(We) clean them and make them look brand new,” he said. “It helps me knowing we can all make a difference.”
And it was shoes that helped him conquer his fear of returning to a school. He has visited several elementary schools to distribute shoes and set up shoe closets to collect donations.
“It is the first time he walked back into a school. It is the only way he walks into a school, with Kyler’s Kicks,” Nipper said.
Kyler is home schooled and hopes someday to return to classes. One of the reasons Kyler’s starting the lounge is because he knows how important mental health care is, especially as his family struggled to pay for treatments. His mom believes that access to better mental health care could have also changed the lives of Kyler’s bullies.
“The key to (preventing) bullying is, honestly, with mental health,” she said. “That right there will combat the bullying.”
Despite all the challenges they faced, the family chooses forgiveness.
“I don’t really hold any grudges. People make bad decisions. It’s not fair to judge someone for something they did three years ago,” Kyler said.
“It wasn’t only Kyler’s life that was changed. It was another little boy’s and his mom’s and she was hurting just as much in a different way,” she said. “You have to respond and reach out with love.”