In May of this year I was approached by a group called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). They are a part of the Soboba Indian Tribe in southern California. The group wanted to know if I could get a well-known celebrity skater to come out and talk to their kids and teach them how to skate. I pondered this for a few days before asking them what it was they were trying to accomplish. Was it just teaching some kids how to skate, or was it something bigger? After talking with their group, I realized that they use these programs to help those kids who might not have the opportunity to get the help or education it takes to get to the level of potential they might have in a different environment. With my love for kids and my appreciation for all that skateboarding has done for me, and the places I have been able to see because of my 25 year skateboarding career, I felt there had to be more I could do than just introduce them to a pro-skater and learn how to maybe skate for a day. What happens after they meet a pro skater? Where does that take them? What will they get out of the whole thing, and what will or can they do with that information? Something just did not jibe with me on this. I am a person who never does anything 80% or 90%. It has always had to be 120%, or it has never been worth doing it all. Throwing some ideas around in my head and talking to some friends about this, I told them to give me a few weeks to come up with a proposal for something different. Thinking back to my childhood, most of my lifeencouraging lessons came from having many experiences and options to choose my interests from. I remember watching my dad working on his Top Fuel dragsters and wanting to learn how the mill and lathe worked. I was eager to learn how to paint, how to build and how to race. I remember at that age wanting to learn everything. I learned that anything was possible after being around so many different options. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by talented men and women to show me that you can make or do anything you want to do, with or without a big budget.
I felt this was my best chance to give these lessons back and started to formulate the plan to make a difference in these kids’ minds. I contacted my longtime mentor and friend Jerry Madrid for some help. Then I approached Don Brown at Sole Technology, Neil Piper at AEND Industries, and lastly my friend Bob Mannarelli at HB Apparel. My plan was not only to teach the kids how to skate, but to show them that behind every Tony Hawk there are millions of jobs and opportunities. I wanted them to experience the sights and sounds of how to make boards, wheels, clothing, shoes and ramps. This way, after we were all done, I had hope that something would spark an interest sometime in the near future and they would have an option to pursue their dreams. Two weeks later the plan was in place, and I presented it to Soboba TANF. The plan was to take 40 to 45 kids for six days (over the course of two weeks) and introduce them to the skateboarding industry and culture, and then teach them how to skate. TANF accepted the plan, and I had two months to put everything into place. My hope was that we could make a difference in at least one young adult’s life, using the sport I have loved since I was seven years old.
DAY ONE: FRIDAY MORNING
After working with Neil Piper and Jerry Madrid preparing for the first day of this experimental skate camp we were all ready. I arrived early at the Madrid factory and warehouse. I have no idea why I was so nervous – I guess because I wanted this to go down perfectly, without any hitch. Angela, Mandy and Alex (of Madrid) were all putting extra stuff together for the kids, like CW mags with Freshpark and Madrid stickers in them, one for each kid. At 10 a.m. we were standing outside waiting for what we thought would be a little school bus, or one of those crazy 1962 restored church buses. As the Soboba TANF bus pulled in we realized quickly that this was not the case. It was a Prevost type of bus, complete with TVs and leather seats. As the giant bus pulled into the small parking lot I climbed in to say hi to the kids. All my nervousness disappeared right away as soon as I saw their faces. There was this one kid right up front, (I later found out his name was Nick), and we seemed to bond “skatedude to skatedude” within 10 seconds. Every kid was pretty hip. They all had their own attitudes, all very unique, which reminded me of how independent I was at that age.
As they all trailed out you could hear them already excited about being at a board company. Once inside, we realized that even though there were only 40 kids and five adults, plus one bus driver, the offices of Madrid were bursting at the seams. I separated them into two groups, with Jerry taking the first group for the tour and Alex taking the second. I just followed and observed while taking pictures. Only 10 minutes into this six-day ordeal, I was already feeling very good about the direction I decided to go. The kids were asking questions, pointing at everything and ooh-ing and aah-ing. I think I was already getting more out of it than they were, and they didn’t even know the big surprises in store yet.
Once the Madrid tour concluded, each kid was able to take home their own complete Freshpark board made right there in the Madrid factory, plus a helmet, wrist guards, knee pads and elbow pads. They also got the mags and stickers. It looked like Christmas had come early as they were searching for places under the bus to fit all of that new equipment. Once on the bus, I got back up in there and gave them a random test about what they’d seen – things like “how many layers are the normal boards made of, what kind of wood do they use, how are the graphics put on, how designs are made,” etc. I knew then that they had been very interested, because every single question was answered correctly. I was hoping that any one of these experiences would spark something within each creative young mind. Maybe one of them would become a woodworker or a designer of skateboards?
Now all loaded with goodies, Alex helped to guide the truck out of the tiny parking lot and follow me in my Freshpark Team van over to the AEND Factory. Thankfully, it was only a couple of miles away. I designed the tour this way, knowing that a kid‘s attention span is not much longer than my big toenail. I didn’t want them to lose any momentum or information. Once there, Neil was all ready for us. It was crazy seeing that many people go upstairs to be greeted by the always happy Rachael. With a huge smile, she came out and talked to the kids as we waited for Neil to come back in from the factory. Once inside I introduced Neil as the man who was responsible, along with Tom Peterson, for making me so fast in my downhill career. If it weren’t for them, I would have never won the 20 World Championships I did. Then Neil took over like a champ – questioning kids about why people are in business, how businesses run, and what his company provides to the skateboard industry. It was amazing to see how much the kids got into what I would have thought were boring and somewhat too mature questions. But this probably is why Neil has kids – because he was meant to. I was so impressed with all of them.
Neil then took them out to the loft overlooking the factory, while he went down and pulled warm pieces out as the molding machines were finished. He would throw them up to the kids and adults as he explained the process of making the hubs for wheels, all along asking questions to keep them into it. Then we all made our way down the stairs, and Neil took them all through each step of making the highest performance wheels in the world. He showed them the plastic pellets and how they are molded into hubs, then trimmed; the giant computerized urethane-mixing machines and how wheels are poured, trimmed and printed on; the packaging and shipping; and the ordering board that shows how many wheels need to get done every day. Neil was careful to explain the value of people: “No matter how great your equipment, you need the best people to make the best products, and I have great people.”
Once the tour had concluded Neil led them back up to the upper office to form a line and receive a set of high-performance street wheels, a set of aluminum inserts along with grade 8 mini bearings. I thought, hang on! I don’t even have anything like that! So I cut in line for my share of the treasure, too. Once outside and all loaded up in the buses, I got on to tell the kids that I would see them tomorrow out at The Oaks to start the skateboard training part of this camp. They were very excited and asked who was going to be teaching them. I told them there would be four very good skateboarders: Lyle Palmer, my stepson, who rules rails, ledges and streets; Mandy Esch, who is a professional bowl, pool and vert skater with a lot of knowledge in teaching; Sam Ogas, an all-around great skater who has been teaching skateboarding for about five years; and Oscar Gonzales, one of the best street and park skaters I have ever seen in my life. The girls seemed very happy that I had a female skater to teach also. Only two tours down and I already had way too many memories to fit in this article. It made me think that kids are very cool and we could learn from them on how to be more open and less fearful.
DAY TWO: SATURDAY MORNING 6 a.m.
– the team met me at my house to load up and make the twohour drive out to Hemet for our first day of teaching. While driving we were coming up with a strategy to teach the more than 40 kids. First, we had to separate them according to levels. Once we were there we could not believe how many kids already had their pads on and were sitting there waiting for us as we drove up. It was 8 a.m., and these kids were ready. I got all of them to sit on the ramps while I gave my “how fun skateboarding can be if done right” speech. More than half of the kids had never ridden on a board, so I put them with Sam to learn how to fall first. Some had been on a board, but not comfortably yet, so I had Mandy teach them how to push correctly and go through a long, slightly downhill slalom course to learn how to turn and stop. The rest knew how to ride, but not in parks yet, so Lyle and Oscar took them to show them how to drop in, compress, turn, grind, etc. I pretty much took photos and oversaw the whole process. The speed and enthusiasm with which they all learned was amazing. We had this one kid named Joe that didn’t want to learn the basics and just jumped up on the quarterpipe, rode off the coping and slammed into the asphalt about three times in a row before we had to stop him and make him learn on a smaller wedge ramp first. Oscar then nicknamed him “the Wrecking Ball.”
This first day could not have gone better. It was about 98 degrees out, yet no one was stopping or slowing down at all. Sam had a line of about 12 girls running and sliding on their knees and then elbows. Then they would go over to Mandy to learn how to ride and turn. Then some even went over to Lyle and Oscar and tried to drop in on a smaller ramp. By noon we were all exhausted. We grouped together, all had lunch, and I talked about what I was going to have them do for the next day, and then we left. While driving away we noticed that pretty much all of them put their pads back on and were back out riding on whatever level they had stopped on. We talked about how strong and determined all of them were all the way home.
DAY THREE: SUNDAY MORNING
Once again we were off at 6 a.m. to go out for our second four-hour day of teaching. I decided to keep the teaching days down to four hours for two reasons: one, it is just too damn hot at 100 degrees, and two, so we could keep their attention and limit what they needed to retain for one day. The team pretty much slept in the van while I drove the whole way out. During the last four miles or so they woke up and we all discussed how this day would be the factor on how much the kids really wanted to learn how to skateboard. After taking a lot of falls and skating all day yesterday, we all thought that maybe half or less would have shown up for today and that this would be the true test. Once again, we pulled up the hill to the park and not only were there all of the kids from the day before, in pads, with helmets on, ready to go, but at least another six or seven new ones. This was amazing to us, but very satisfying.
Once we had our morning meeting of the minds, I decided to make up an obstacle course with five hits in it. I would have each of my team at each hit, including me, to help them get over it. Lyle took the first pass to show how they were supposed to do it. They were to take off turning through 4 cones, then up and over a small pyramid set up with two wedge ramps and a fun box in the middle, then around two cones placed far apart and up and over a small launch ramp spine setup. Once over that, they had to click-clack their way to the next setup, which was a launch ramp to double fun box and launch ramp down. That completed, it was down to another spine but with wedge ramps, and then off to the finish, which was a wedge ramp to fun box to grind rail off. All of us stood at each hit to hold their hands, arms, or just guide them across. We did this whole thing twice and it worked very well, making them all fearless to anything they could ride on. After this drill we let them go back to picking what they wanted to learn and had an instructor at each section.
I looked over one time to see Mandy teaching a kid who was easily twice her size. He was riding up and over a small spine, while she was trying to hold him up with his hands on her shoulders. It was an incredible sight. Mandy was straining every last muscle in her legs to hold herself from falling and being crushed. But she did it, and he learned how to do it on his own within four or five tries. It was very cool to watch the kids’ faces when they would get it. First scared, then after many attempts and finally getting it, they would be proud. I had one kid named Paul who was determined that he could not drop in on the launch ramp. I would hold him down the whole thing and his knees would buckle. Then after I could get him to ride down it while I held him he would say there was no way he could do it without me holding on to him. Finally after about 25 tries, he stood up there, only 2 feet off the ground on the fun box connected to the launch ramp. I told him I would catch him no matter what so just go for it. He stood there for what felt like hours, but really probably just three minutes. You could see through his eyes while he tried to overcome his fears that he could do this. Finally he leaned forward, bent his knees, put his arms out and rode down. I had my arms out to catch him but pulled them back as he made it to the ground. He made it, and the other kids let him know how cool they thought that was. That was it, it was great to witness – and after that he just went for everything. I was hoping this would be a lesson for him and the others to never give up, in anything you do. So eight hours of teaching down and every single kid was pushing, riding, turning and knowing how to fall, but most of all, laughing, smiling and having a great time. Half of the kids were not only dropping in on ramps, but trying to attempt the grind rails and riding fakie. Even little Joe a.k.a. Wrecking Ball was dropping in on the quarterpipes now. We ate lunch with the kids and said goodbye until next Friday. While driving home we were in awe at the fortitude these kids had and felt like we were really doing something good here. My team was the best, and I was happy with the project so far.
DAY FOUR: FRIDAY MORNING
Today was another field trip day of discovering skate-industry jobs and companies. First off in the morning the bus arrived at the HB Apparel factory. Here I wanted to show the kids along with owner Bob Mannarelli how the clothing industry is run and how shirts are printed. I designed a Soboba Skate Camp shirt for Bob to use in his lessons and demonstrations. First the kids got to see how the design goes from the computer art into making films for printing. They learned how each color has to line up perfectly on the screen for better registration on the printing press. The kids were very impressed as the process went on all the way until their shirts were printed and coming down the dryer belt. Once at the other end they were able to take one of their size and keep it. Bob kept the questions coming the whole time and did a great job teaching the kids every detail of the process. Once again I was hoping to spark something in one of their minds. Maybe they would want to be a designer, or have their own shirt line or become a printer. Either way, this was a big hit with the kids, and they all started putting on their new camp shirts. From HB Apparel they got back on the bus and followed me down to the Sole Tech offices and warehouses. I had pre-arranged for them to eat lunch at the Etnies skatepark. They watched Oscar ride in the park and do some amazing tricks. Every rider in the park stopped to watch him. While this was going on, I took groups of 10 kids to the Etnies store, where Don Brown arranged for me to get the team deal on shoes. Each kid was in heaven there and loved not only all of the shoes, but the offices and marketing materials on the walls. Two hours later all 40 kids had a new pair of the Etnies of their choice and got to see how huge the shoe market really is. The kids loaded onto the bus and headed back to Hemet. They now had their own Madrid skateboard, Viking pads & helmet, extra set of wheels, speed bearings, new shirt and new shoes. These kids were set.
DAY FIVE: SATURDAY MORNING
We were all wondering how much of last week’s lessons the kids would remember and how many would show up for week two. Today was supposed to be 104 degrees, so we wanted to get started right away. The team slept most of the way, except during an occasional Hickey practical joke by slamming on the brakes and yelling. Once we were there it was business as usual. The kids were ready and waiting for us. They also moved some of the park around to make it how they wanted. The nice thing about the Freshpark system is that you can make it into what ever you want (plug!). We started out with a giant one-line downhill race – not that fast, but they had to get into two teams and do a relay. The first leg was sitting down, almost luge style, through a giant slalom coned course; when they crossed the finish line the next would go standing up and so on. Believe it or not it came down to about 10 feet at the end of 40 kids. I wanted to start out with that for warming up and getting the fun started. We then set up the obstacle course through the hits like we did last week to make sure they did not forget how to get over the ramps and onto the rails. When that was all done we put the park back together and started teaching almost every kid how to ride the ramps. They were all dropping in, some falling pretty hard once in a while, but getting right back up and doing it again. Nick, the kid I first bonded with, was helping us, since he was a good skater. Since the kids refused to wear a name tag due to the “not cool branding,” we were forced to just try to remember 47 kids’ names. This was definitely not possible, but we remembered every kid‘s face and ability and worked with them accordingly. This being the secondto- last day, the kids had progressed further than I thought they would. About 15 kids were really trying hard to master getting on and r i d i n g t h e grind rail. Lyle and Oscar helped them with that. It was another great day, and the kids advanced again faster than humanly possible.
DAY SIX: SUNDAY
Well, 6 a.m. again and the team was ready for the last day. We were all kind of sad that it was almost over, but we definitely needed a rest. The team decided that this was the last day for the kids to try to learn their hardest tricks or things that they wanted to learn. We would make sure they could do it before we left. Upon arrival, like clockwork, they were ready. They were a little more tired than last Sunday due to us really making them work yesterday. We rearranged the park a little to make it so there were three different levels in rows, or three runs for each step of difficulty. The first row was just pushing into a wedge ramp, fun box, fun box, wedge ramp. The middle run was starting on a fun box, dropping in down a launch ramp, ride, back up a launch ramp, across two fun boxes and back down a wedge ramp, then finish it off with a launch ramp mini-spine. The last run was an 8-foot-wide quarterpipe into another quarterpipe volcano, into another quarterpipe – kind of like two halfpipes meeting in the middle. We made the kids start on the easy one first. Everyone made it across that at least once, and these were kids that had never skateboarded two weeks ago. Then we took the ones who were comfortable in moving up a notch to the next row, which was about 80% of them. Some had it down easy, and some needed some help. Either way, this group all made it through eventually. On the last run (and the hardest), we had about 40% left. It was awesome to watch all three runs being ridden and each kid challenging himself or herself further and further. We had a wedge ramp to a fun box hooked to a grind rail setup for the few that wanted to master the grind rail. By the end of the day, there were about 10 guys and three girls riding across the rail with complete ease and no help. I couldn’t even do what they were doing!
Once we were all to the end, Lyle, Oscar and Mandy put on a little show for the kids, showing them how far they could take this. Lyle was getting some massive airs off the launch ramps and landed every one of his crazy flip tricks to grind rail like a machine. Oscar was doing insane stuff, and Mandy rode in a classic style, carving and shredding the park with smooth grace, popping off some ollies here and there. Sam was just worn out and in pain from a recent surgery, so he just watched. Once we finally calmed everyone down and got them all together I was asked to give a little speech for the kids. I talked about my childhood and how rough the school and neighborhood was that I grew up in. I talked about how you can do anything you want to if you just keep trying and never, ever quit. The weird thing was that about half way through all of this I found myself holding back some tears. Weird, I know, but these kids had obviously really affected me, and what we did here in the last two weeks was way above any idea I had. As we drove home, I felt truly blessed to have been put in the situation to give this and to have this experience and lesson for myself. I am going to try to do more of these types of industry/skateboarding camps in the future. Skateboarding truly is a whole world of its own, and there are a lot of opportunities for business, employment, traveling, fun, friends and a unique lifestyle. I am just one lucky dude to have been a part of this culture, and it has been very good to me.