2017-09-14 / Front Page


Teen puts her spin on rubber meeting the road

Elaine Porter, left, browses merchandise designed by Sterling Dintersmith at the farmers market under the Fort Getty pavilion. Dintersmith, a freshman at Stanford, sells sandals made from worn tires and bags made from old pants. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Elaine Porter, left, browses merchandise designed by Sterling Dintersmith at the farmers market under the Fort Getty pavilion. Dintersmith, a freshman at Stanford, sells sandals made from worn tires and bags made from old pants. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Donald Trump is leaps and bounds more powerful than Sterling Dintersmith, yet the 19-year-old sees an opportunity to stunt the president’s agenda whenever a tire is tossed onto a heap.

When Dintersmith rode her bicycle from Oregon to Arizona during her gap year between high school and college, the journey started with a single rotation. She believes Americans should exercise that same concept when it comes to the growing list of social injustice, such as the environment.

“I know that I can’t solve every problem, and I’m probably not going to make a ton of headway on this one,” she said. “But if everybody makes some progress, we’ll be fine. Everybody sees these issues and feels overwhelmed, but a small change is good. Choose one little thing and make it happen.”

Dintersmith is the founder of Manatee Gear Designs, an operation that relies on one woman and her grandmother’s sewing machine. She fashions sandals using salvaged tires from Central Garage and designs tote bags using old pants from the thrift store. In her three weeks at the Fort Getty farmers market, she sold 30 pairs of sandals and 20 bags. Dintersmith raised $600 and didn’t keep a cent of her profits.

“If someone has no cash and promises to donate to their favorite charity, I’d give them a bag for free,” she said.

The journey from a 13-year-old seamstress to a college activist, however, wasn’t a straightforward trip.

Year on the road

Dintersmith, a boarding student and cross-country runner while at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, worked her senior year in 2015-16 because she wanted to travel before college. That’s why she saved everything she earned from her job at a pastry bakery.

Traveling, especially with a backpack and tent, is in Dintersmith’s blood. She grew up in a globe-trotting family, visiting 37 countries on seven continents with her parents, Emerson Road residents Ted Dintersmith and Elizabeth Hazard, and her older brother, Gibson, who is now a 21-year-old concert photographer based in Los Angeles.

As she became an adult, however, Dintersmith wanted to explore the world without supervision. She left home in the summer of 2016 to lead Chewonki wilderness trips for middle school girls in Maine, then flew to the Pacific Northwest to study bicycle repair. With the skills to fix her own bike, Dintersmith headed south, a month-long trip to Arizona staying at national forests and state parks in lieu of hotels.

“That route goes through a lot of public land,” she said. “I camped along the way.”

Following this experience, she went to South America, working on an Argentine farm for three months herding cows from the mountains to the lowlands on horseback. When her visa expired, she traveled west to Chile.

“I was supposed to go home a month before that,” she said. “My parents were nervous, but they supported me. I’m lucky.”

Dintersmith noticed a bad habit among the Chileans. “Here, we throw away tires in the proper place. There, they just leave them in the woods or piled in a street corner.”

At the same time, Dintersmith was ready for a new pair of shoes. That’s when a light bulb went off in her head.

Cause for concern

Dintersmith was 13 when her mother taught her how to sew on her grandmother’s machine. She began designing her own hammocks, backpacks and tents.

“It was a hobby,” she said. “I would make stuff to take into the wilderness and test.”

That hobby turned into a passion during her trip, which depended heavily on using public land as her home. When Dintersmith heard Trump’s plan to scale back federal land, she realized her “little thing to make happen.”

“It’s nice to hike with your own gear, but that’s not making anything better,” she said. “I figured I would actually do something to better the world.”

Dintersmith’s gear is made from recycled materials, with profits benefiting the Cool Effect organization to reduce carbon emissions. She does all of the work herself, using X-Acto knives, belt sanders, hole punches and, of course, her grandmother’s sewing machine.

When Dintersmith departed for Stanford University this week, she brought the sewing machine with her. When she’s not studying to become a designer, Dintersmith hopes to commit one day each month to her business, sewing dozens of items for her inventory. Although she isn’t at the farmers market, bags and sandals are available on her website, manateegear.com. Her business name stems from her favorite animal. “Manatees are cool, friendly animals,” she said.

Although Dintersmith will focus on design in her freshman year, her career plans still are pending. She’s also considering a career as an advocate to protect public land.

“These are federally promised to future generations,” she said. “If I ever have kids, I wouldn’t want them to grow up in this country without that. It’s what makes me most proud of being an American.”

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