In 1995, Mike Donelon’s neighbor called him in a huff. A group of hooligans were taking over the streets and causing trouble. Donelon drove back to California Heights to settle the matter, assuming it was being overrun with gangbangers. Instead, when he arrived he came face-to-face with a group of disgruntled 10-year-olds and their skateboards.
Jonathan, a bold 8-year-old rider, got in his face first. “You’re a big shot,” he said. “If we can’t skate in our own front yard build us a skatepark.”
Jonathan was right in his accusation. Donelon was then a member of Long Beach City Council and took the lead in pushing for skateboarding to be classified as a “hazardous sport.” As such, the city would be required to defend its participants as it has done with bike riding. But instead of a designated lane, skateboarders would need a trick park.
Donelon took his case to community meetings and the City Council. To underline his point, he scooped up a group of 40 kids for a meeting at City Hall. When the first park opened in El Dorado Park, those 40 kids were still hanging around the “big shots,” but no longer as poster-children for at-risk youth. They had attended each meeting until Donelon’s petition passed. They had sat in on design sessions and had been instrumental in the development and fundraising that went into the park before it opened in 2000.
“What inspired me the most about this group of kids was their interest and commitment to be involved in a process,” Donelon said. “Watching that solidified my passion and belief that this is going to work to get kids involved in their community.”
Donelon consequently founded the Action Sports Kids Foundation (ASK), a non-profit comprised of businessmen and neighborhood kids working to proliferate the positive results the El Dorado Park project showed. What began as a simple solution to trespassing has become a real tool for neighborhoods once ridden with crime and violence. Recent statistics show that within three years there has been a 28 percent decrease in crime overall, violent crime is down 30 percent, and drug-related crime is down a whopping 60 percent in the areas immediately surrounding the skateparks.
“It’s an interaction between all kids and they get along, which in this neighborhood is an incredible accomplishment,” Donelon said. “The skateparks hosts more diversity than anything in our park system… It’s not structured like Boys & Girls or YMCA. It’s rough around the edges. It could have been a basketball court or football field but it’s a skatepark.”
Skateboarding being what it is in Southern California, Donelon says that 800,000 is a conservative estimate for the amount of boarders who have ridden the Long Beach skateparks, which now total nine (see directory), and approximately four generations of riders. Zachary Fontanez, 17, hits up McBride Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave after school and figures there are at least 50 people riding at that time. Some shuffle in from surrounding Orange County areas. The park even attracts tourists from Australia, Columbia, and elsewhere who have heard about what has become Skate Park USA. And rightly so: Long Beach now has more skateparks per capita than any city in the country.
This notoriety caught the attention of the Tony Hawk Foundation in San Diego County. Miki Vuckovich, Executive Director of the foundation, says ASK “epitomizes what we think is ideal for youth and young skaters. It gets them engaged and involved in positive community-building projects.”
The Tony Hawk Foundation serves the skating community in two ways: technical assistance—consulting with park developers on the process of designing and building a park—and doling out grants. The foundation has help fund over 500 parks and has provided technical assistance to 2,000 clients nationwide. But, according to Vuckovich, Long Beach is much farther along than most cities in terms of its maturity in skatepark advocacy.
“It has branched out to be a much broader program,” Vuckovich said. “The fact that the organization continues to keep them together after the skateparks are built and move on to add events at the parks and outside them, it’s something brother communities should emulate.”
Perhaps it is this continuous and seemingly unconditional dedication to the movement amongst the younger generation that makes ASK so unique and, therefore, so successful. Two parks are named after kids who grew up in the program and fell victim to gang violence. The reaction of the kids under the ASK umbrella was sorrowful disappointment but not defeated hopelessness.
After Charley Ford died last October, Donelon’s Facebook page was a hotspot for ranting, grieving, and airing frustrations. Since then, ASK has renamed its August Jam event after Ford and it is working with skate camps to create a Charley Ford memorial scholarship.
“When you have nothing and you have a positive role model and then they’re killed it’s devastating,” Donelon lamented. “ASK makes them feel like they’re doing something for Charley. They see this stuff everyday. They know more kids that have been killed than I do. They don’t accept it but they’re realists.
“There’s never a loss of hope. I’ve been a politician and when I’m honest with myself I know I’m not going to stop gang violence. But I never think my work is in vain.”
Donelon’s optimism is precisely what makes the Long Beach skating community so unique and its venture so promising. “That’s the one caveat,” said Vuckovich. “As much as we would love cities to emulate Long Beach, Mike is really one in a million. People have a lot to learn from him and his foundation and we do hope people start thinking beyond the park itself.”