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Friday, March 22, 2013

By Chris Nieratko

In recent years I've embraced the importance of spreading the gospel of skateboarding to underprivileged kids around the globe. The timing can be traced back to becoming a father for the first time and all the emotions that come with parenthood, but I believe there's a part of the skateboard industry that feels it's their duty to give back in any way they can.

I am blessed to have powerful friends in skateboarding who feel the same way and who have gotten behind my many goodwill efforts. In 2009, with my 5-month-pregnant wife in tow, a group of 16 pro and am skaters, filmers, photographers, team managers and friends flew to Cuba bring skateboards to the young children. That trip was a result of seeing a web video of a Havana skater and how he literally cried his eyes out when he snapped his skateboard -- knowing it might be months before he magically got another one. The only way to get a skateboard in Cuba is if a foreign visitor leaves one behind.

Kids in the Dominican Republic hyped on the Harold Hunter Foundation.

Owning three skateshops in New Jersey and seeing how disposable old boards are to American kids, I decided to start saving old decks at my shops and asked for donations from companies. The response was staggering. We entered Havana with over 200 new decks, 50 complete skateboards, 300 pairs of skate shoes, countless wheels, bearings and all the fixings. Tons of kids in Havana received a new deck that day and some even took home a backup in case they snapped their first. The list of companies that aided in that adventure is too long to list, but a few of the names that come to mind were Girl Skateboards, Deluxe Distribution, Vans, Sole Technology, and of course Red Bull.

Days before last Halloween, my homeland of New Jersey was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. Again I reached out to my friends in the skateboard industry for new and unused clothing for those families and skaters that lost everything in the storm. We used my NJ Skateshops as a receiving center for what I anticipated to be just a few boxes coming from California. Instead, over the course of last November, we received and distributed no less than 1000 boxes of clothing, sneakers and supplies.

With that said, it came as no surprise when asked by Damon Johnson, Red Bull's NYC Field Marketing Manager, if I'd go to the Dominican Republic with New York resident and Dominican-born skateboarder, Luis Tolentino. The plan was to do skate clinics for the Harold Hunter Foundation.

The Harold Hunter Foundation was established in 2006 after the passing of the charismatic New York City skate icon, Harold Hunter, "to use skateboarding as a vehicle to provide inner-city youth with valuable life experiences that nurture individual creativity, resourcefulness and the development of life skills." This D.R. trip would serve as their first international endeavor.

Arriving in Santiago, I made the two-hour drive to Cabarete and meet up with Tolentino, Damon, Jessica Forsyth (Co-Founder of the HHF) and The Harold Hunter Foundation crew. The first day was a whirlwind of activities: we started the day off surfing with former Red Bull pro surfer, Luciano Gonzalez, at his LG Surf Camp, then Tolentino did a TV interview to promote the upcoming skate clinic, followed by a visit to the Tolentino family estate. We also sampled his beekeeper uncle's honey, (he was once attacked and stung 80 times).

The following day we were on to the business at hand: the skate clinic in Cabarete. The small, impoverished surf town of Cabarete is rather new and deceiving -- the beachfront is built up for tourism while inland is a labyrinth of shantytowns. Its existence was to house the builders and masons who built the beach town of Puerto Plata. The average income for the residents of Cabarete is 6,000 pesos a month -- roughly $146 U.S. Needless to say, families in that area have little money to spare for anything other than basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter. Owning an expensive toy like a skateboard is a luxury.

In the Dominican Republic, early education is a rarity. There is only one preschool in the village of Cabarete, but at 1,000 pesos a month most residents cannot afford to send their children to school until they are 6-years-olds, when general education is free. The result is that most children are not reading or learning the alphabet until they are 7. Hearing this pulled on my heart strings, (my first born attended a blue-ribbon, free, pre-school where he's able to spell and read at the age of 3), and made me want to donate more of my time to teach the kids -- but someone has beat me to it. Enter the DREAM Project.

Luis Tolentino goes big in his homeland of the Dominican Republic.

The DREAM Project provides quality education for more than 3,000 children annually, through 24 programs in 11 different communities in the Dominican Republic, affecting the lives of more than 5,000 community members. One of those communities just so happened to be in Cabarete. Aside from the focus on early education The Dream Project welcomes volunteers from all around the globe to enrich children's lives by teaching them music, athletics and basic socialization; all very important attributes of skating.

Jessica Forsyth, co-founder of the Harold Hunter Foundation, reached out to the Dream Project to set up a skate clinic in the Dominican Republic for 20 lucky boys and girls ranging in age from 5 to 14 years old. With Luis Tolentino as the lead counselor, backed by a half dozen New York City skaters as volunteers, we spent three hours teaching kids, some without shoes on their feet, how to push and turn on a skateboard. Their reactions to their own quick progress and seeing Luis ollie everything in sight was priceless.

Thanks to the charitable donations of a number of NYC brands like Shut, 5Boro and Zoo York, The Harold Hunter Foundation was able to leave 20 completes behind for the kids of The Dream Project school so that this would not be their only exposure to skateboarding.

As rewarding as the laughs and cheers during the clinic were, it was hard not to notice the crowd of dozens of children gathering outside the school fence trying to get a glimpse of the odd sight of people rolling around on a slab of wood. Outside of the school the buildings were crumbling, the roads were gravel and riddled with holes, half the children didn't have shoes, and most didn't have shirts. I wanted to open the fence and let them all in. I wished that we had enough boards for every kid in the crowd -- for every needy kid everywhere. I'm well aware that skateboarding cannot end poverty or world hunger but it sure can allow for a bit of escapism from those problems. I realized that day in Cabarete, seeing the smiles on those kids faces, that perhaps the reason I love these goodwill trips so much is that it reminds me of why so many of my generation got into skateboarding in the first place. There was no money back in the '80s, no $200,000 prize purses at contests, no thoughts of getting rich or making a career off skating. For us it was a means to escape the problems we all lived with and dealt with in our broken homes. If nothing else, at least Tolentino, Red Bull and The Harold Hunter Foundation gave those 20 kids a much needed three-hour break from a reality that children should not have to endure.