You may think the only thing the homeless have in common with young skateboarders is the streets they share. In Nebraska, though, one group is now reaching out to the other -- with some amazing results that are spreading across the nation and to Canada.
A flock of skateboarders barrel down city sidewalks, their wheels playing a percussive rhythm as they whisk past pedestrians. To some, this noise can sound like a nuisance, but to the homeless around downtown Lincoln, it can sound like relief.
These skateboarders are a part of a movement that began in Lincoln and has now gone international. It’s called Skate for Change. The youth fill their backpacks with donated items such as bottled water, beef jerkey, hygiene kits, and socks to give to those in need in the community.
(Photo by James Pace-Cornsilk, NET)
"Skate for Change was completely just, kind of an accident."
Mike Smith, founder of Skate for Change and The Bay.
Smith said he has always wanted to dedicate his time and efforts to helping people. “I didn’t necessarily know what that was going to look like, I didn’t know where that was going to take me, but that was kind of always what I wanted to do when I grew up.”
Before Smith could create community outreach movements with his skateboard, he had to learn to ride.
“The first time I got a skateboard I was a fourth grader,” he said. “So I was just a little guy, and it was just sort of one of those things you did for fun as a kid.”
After graduating from high school in Imperial, Neb., Smith moved east to Omaha to play basketball for Grace University. While in Omaha, he began to get involved with various outreach programs.
(Photo courtesy of Steve Andel)
Professional skateboarder Ryan Sheckler watches as Mike Smith shakes hands with a Lincoln homeless man after giving him a hygiene kit. Sheckler came to Lincoln several years ago to participate in a Skate for Change mission.
(Photo by James Pace-Cornsilk, NET)
Boxes of food, drinks, blankets and clothing are stacked in a back room of The Bay skate park in Lincoln. Donations from businesses and individuals are handed out by Skate for Change participants to the homeless.
He then received a phone call that gave his ambition to work with youth a little clarity.
“I got a phone call like four years ago,” Smith remembers. “ There was a skate park here in Lincoln and the executive director called me and said, ‘Hey our skate park’s closing down, if you want our ramps, you can have them.’ He said, ‘you have to keep them in Lincoln, do something positive for kids,’ and that’s what got my mind going about hey maybe I can create something in Lincoln involving skateboarding and potentially outreach or whatever…It was really this humble beginning of maybe we can start something and we weren’t really sure what we had, and it’s really grown a lot since then.”
Smith moved to Lincoln and began to use his skate park, called The Bay, as a hub for developing the Skate For Change movement, often encouraging kids there to come along on Skate For Change missions. Kids like 17-year-old Dawson ElDorado
“One day I was just skating at The Bay and some guys were telling me about it and saying, ‘Hey, let’s go give some food and water and stuff to homeless people,’ and I said, ‘That sounds like fun,’ and I just joined and I just loved it ever since,” ElDorado said.
Lara Huskey also works with the homeless in Lincoln, She doesn’t use a skateboard, though; she uses her keyboard. Huskey is the director of rural and community development for the Nebraska Commission on Housing and Homelessness. She said it’s difficult for homeless outreach organizations like Skate for Change and others to meet the growing needs, especially in a sluggish economy.
“They all have to do a lot of fundraising. And sometimes it’s difficult to be able to come up with resources in order to help the homeless,” Huskey said.
(Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
Lara Huskey, director of rural and community development for the Nebraska Commission on Housing and Homelessness.
An organization like Skate for Change, though, is able to provide assistance with few strings attached. “It’s always good to have locally, you know, grass roots kind of ‘this is the problem we want to solve, this is what we need to solve it.”
The ease of participating in something like Skate for Change could be the reason why founder Mike Smith has watched the movement spread across the country. It’s grown to Detroit, Seattle, Kansas City, Denver and into Canada.
Smith said donations have been flooding in from unexpected places. “We’ll have churches drop stuff off. We’ll have moms make 100 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bring them for us to give out,” Smith said. “We’ll have a beef jerky company drop off a half a semi full of beef jerky to give out. Kids on campus are making hygiene kits. Axe body spray showed up with two giant things of shampoo and conditioner and just gave it to us to give out.”
This type of outreach seems like the perfect combination. Skateboarders gravitate toward downtown for the best skate spots, and in turn, surround themselves with the homeless people who may be living in the area. But as the movement grows, Smith hopes he becomes completely irrelevant.
“I would love to see Skate for Change happen all over the world and no one would need to know who I was or where it started or how they even got a part of a Skate for Change crew,” he said. “That to me is the end game.”
Editor’s Note: Watch a special feature on Skate for Change on NET Television’s “Nebraska Stories” program Sunday, April 14 at 9:00 p.m. CT on NET1/HD.