Story and graphics by Haley Whisennand, NewsNetNebraska
Mike Smith remembers skating down the streets of Lincoln during his lunch hour. He wasn’t going to lunch, though. Strapped to his shoulders hung a backpack filled with basics – socks, hygiene packs, food – that he took to the homeless people sitting on the sidewalks downtown. His friends and coworkers soon caught on to what Smith was doing. Soon they joined in and named their cause “Skate for Change.”
Skate for Change‘s Lincoln chapter has received over $90,000 in large grant money and donations from fundraisers. The non-profit received two State Farm Neighborhood Assist grant of $25,000 each and received large donations for several fundraising events put on by the chapter. Their largest fundraiser – Skate the State – has brought in approximately $10,000 each year for the past three years since the fundraiser’s inception.
The group doesn’t track how much they have given to the homeless or how many people they’ve affected, but Drew Newlin, Mike Smith Live event coordinator and Smith’s right hand man, thinks that the organization has donated thousands of items to hundreds of homeless.
“Most individuals who do SFC here and elsewhere are ultimately less concerned about the data,” Newlin said. “They’re much more concerned about trying to make a person’s day better and show that they’re cared for.”
What Smith originally thought of as a simple way to engage with the homeless population in Lincoln caught a spark and is now spreading across the United States. Almost three years since Smith’s first generous ride, more than a dozen Skate for Change chapters exist across the United States.
“There’s probably more than 15 cities that have a Skate for Change chapter,” Smith said. “There are some that are really super brand new and they want to get shirts with the logo and stuff. Then there are kids who have been doing it for months and I have no idea and then they just send me things about what they do.”
Hundreds of teenage and young adult skateboarders across the nation join together to help their communities in the most basic ways possible.
“I never thought Skate for Change would expand nationally,” Smith said. “It was one of those beautiful accidents.”
Skating around Illinois
Skate for Change 815, a chapter based in Rockford, Ill., started after Smith visited Hononegah High School twice. Both times, he spoke to students and staff about Skate for Change and the impact it has on the skateboarding community, as well as the homeless. During his second visit, Dr. Kim Suedbeck, the school’s assistant superintendent, planned for the Hononegah Extreme Sports Club to go out with Smith on the club’s first official Skate for Change outing.
“At first, for high school kids, it’s kind of scary to go see somebody who lives on the streets,” said Suedbeck. “They’re not sure how to approach them. They really took Mike’s direction and his crew’s direction.”
Although the Rockford group only goes out once a month, they reflect on their outings each week.
“We talk about what it means to build relationships with people and to go up and shake their hand,” Suedbeck said. “Introduce yourself. Do more than just hand them something. We talk about introducing yourself. Now, we have a real core group of kids who are very comfortable [talking to the homeless].”
How it all started
The non-profit first started spreading as Smith traveled to high school across the country, speaking to teenagers about leadership, bullying and living for what you love. During his talks, the now 30-year-old speaker mentioned Skate for Change as a part of his personal history. Students caught on and began to start their own Skate for Change chapters with their classmates or other local skateboarders.
Smith didn’t spread Skate for Change alone, though. Newlin dedicated a lot of time to Smith’s endeavors, dipping his toes at some point in just about everything Smith has done.
“ I’ve actually helped Mike spread [Skate for Change] to our chapter in the greater Chicago area and have gone as far as Cleveland, Ohio, doing SFC with him,” Newlin said.
At first, the Skate for Change community grew slowly. Then, one day, Smith received a call from a Red Bull corporate representative who saw Smith and Lincoln’s Skate for Change group in action one afternoon. She asked him what the group was doing. After finding out about the organization and its mission, she submitted the idea to Red Bulletin Magazine, a monthly publication produced by Red Bull.
“I thought they were going to put us on the cover,” said Smith. “Then the article came out and it was four sentences. But I take any exposure we can get.”
After the snippet made it to the hands of the subscribers, all the pieces seemed to just fall into place for Smith and Skate for Change. The non-profit’s headquarters, THE BAY skate park, received a celebrity guest. Ryan Sheckler, one of the most popular professional skateboarders today, visited Lincoln, Neb., in March 2012. Aside from signing autographs and skating with some of the locals, the three-time X-Games gold medalist wanted to hit the streets of downtown Lincoln and help the homeless with the Skate for Change group.
The word that Sheckler traveled to Nebraska to participate in this non-profit spread like wildfire. Kids from other countries have even started to start their own Skate for Change chapters without ever having even seen Smith speak. Smith started to receive pictures and email updates from hundreds of young skateboarders across the country, keeping him updated with their stories.
Sheckler returned on October 27, 2012, with fellow professional skateboarder Felipe Gustavo to help Smith with the soft opening of THE BAY and the facility’s first contest. This time, the crew for Red Bull’s web series Sheckler Sessions accompanied the skateboarder. Episode 11 of the series debuted on November 1, attracting over 400,000 views and immesurable media attention for Skate for Change.
Let the spread begin
Now, almost a year after Sheckler’s visit to Lincoln, Skate for Change is starting to spread into other countries.
“I actually heard about Skate for Change from Red Bull’s Web Series called Sheckler Sessions about Ryan Sheckler,” said Stephen Attong, a student at the University of Toronto. “One of the episodes mentioned Skate for Change and I looked into it and it’s a really cool initiative.”
Skate for Change’s expansion impacts the Lincoln community as well. Suedbeck said that the Skate for Change 815 chapter hopes to organize a trip to the non-profit’s city of origin soon. Smith’s many visits tipped off the Hononegah Extreme Sports Club about THE BAY and, now that Rockford, Ill., will be getting their own skate park in the next couple of years, the group wants to see where Smith’s career and Skate for Change all began.
With Skate for Change now spreading on its own, Smith considers the cause successful. Now, Smith has a new dream for the organization.
“My dream for Skate for Change is for me to be 100 percent irrelevant,” said Smith. “One of the things that I dream about is rolling into a city and seeing a bunch of kids go and skate around and do Skate for Change. I’d like to roll up to them, ask them what they’re doing and they’d say ‘Oh, we’re doing this thing called Skate for Change’. I would ask if I could tag along and, the whole time, they would have no idea who I am. That would be like a dream for me.”