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This NYC Skateboarding Nonprofit Transforms the Lives of Low-Income Youth

Creativity and freedom are at the heart of the Harold Hunter Foundation's work with inner-city youth.

How do we provide inner-city youth with valuable experiences that nurture individual creativity and resourcefulness, develop life skills, and enable them to expand their horizons through travel and service? Skateboarding, in the truest sense, provides kids with freedom—the freedom to take control of their lives, their bodies, the world around them, and their futures.

Since 2007, the Harold Hunter Foundation, a nonprofit, grassroots, skateboard community-based organization, has provided a network of support, resources, and advocacy for New York City's skateboarders. We provide school and community-based programs that are specifically and creatively tailored to meet the needs of—and act as a positive catalyst in the difficult lives of—low-income skateboarding youth.

Skateboarders in our programs get opportunities to travel locally, regionally, and internationally, and we offer career and skill development workshops specifically tailored to skaters. We help skaters of all ages and levels of expertise use skateboarding to give back to their communities. Our programs, which are developed in consultation with local skaters, target inner-city youth with a range of skateboarding ability and experience, and strive to honor the culture of skateboarding by embracing its spirit of freedom, creativity, spontaneity, and entrepreneurship.

We're named after Harold Hunter, an iconic NYC skateboarder who died tragically in 2006. During his lifetime, skateboarding provided Harold with unseen opportunities to experience the world in a way that kids from his background rarely experience. Harold grew up in the Campos Housing projects of the Lower East Side, which at the time was one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. I'll never forget my first image of Harold through the kitchen window of my family's home on St. Marks Place in 1990—a scrawny kid with wide set eyes, bleached blonde hair, an infectious smile, and an unforgettable voice, who used his natural gift for comedy to befriend absolutely anyone he came across.

Harold had access to few conventional resources, but he was exceptionally creative and resourceful. He and my younger sister became best friends and he adopted our family as his own, becoming a regular fixture at the dinner table and regaling us with stories of his adventures interspersed with hilarious tall tales, while he used our apartment as his personal afterschool clubhouse. He was bursting with youthful energy and surrounded by a sea of bad influences—which could have led Harold down the wrong path were it not for the one thing that took him away from all that: skateboarding.

Harold went on to become a world-class professional skater, and I went on to work as an educator and earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Columbia. Through my experience, I know firsthand that the very qualities, abilities, and characteristics that draw kids like Harold to skateboarding can also make them vulnerable to a variety of pitfalls.

Many kids are drawn to skateboarding because they have emotional and behavioral challenges that cause them to struggle significantly in school. Traditional organizations and educational institutions rely on standardization and conformity, thereby hindering the natural expression of skateboarders' creativity, and the development of their talent and full potential.

For example, like Harold, these skateboarders often have a surplus of energy, which makes sitting still in class a struggle. These kids have extraordinary difficulty focusing on tasks they don't find engaging, and learn best by doing rather than watching or being lectured to. Nearly every skateboarder I know tells me that skateboarding actually helps them silence racing thoughts, manage intense emotions, calm nerves, and improve their ability to focus. As opposed to getting into all the trouble they can, skateboarders pour their energy into an activity that helps to build confidence, courage, and determination.

Skateboarding also inherently builds bridges and promotes camaraderie. It doesn’t matter what country you come from, what race, class, or religion you are, or what language you speak. Whenever one skater comes across another, there is an instant connection. Maybe it's the shared feeling of not really fitting in anywhere else in society. Maybe it's the shared understanding of what it’s like to try and try to land a trick—imagine the dedication it takes to be able to skate down a staircase handrail—for hours, days, months, even years and finally get it.

In addition to helping so many kids like Harold find a sense of belonging, skateboarding is healthy for both body and mind. Childhood obesity is rampant and video games and computers have replaced outside activities for many children. In contrast, skateboarding helps build endurance, strength and agility. It also teaches that hard work, practice and commitment have real, tangible results—a feeling that ultimately translates into the rest of a skateboarder's life—and provides a readily available outlet that helps skateboarders manage emotional up and downs.

Even more importantly, skateboarding allows kids to explore their city and broaden their horizons. Without skateboarding as transportation, Harold might have never ventured out of the Lower East Side to Washington Square Park—and from there to Midtown Manhattan, to California, to Japan and Brazil, and the rest of the world. Our skate camp scholarship program, which has been our cornerstone since the foundation's inception, is the first step in opening the door to opportunity for so many young people who would otherwise fall through the cracks. We're an all-volunteer organization that operates on a shoestring budget, but this summer we're trying to raise at least $10,000 to keep the skate camp scholarship program going.

Our goal is to send as many skateboarders as possible to one of the nation's premier action sports camps, Camp Woodward in Pennsylvania. For most HHF skate camp scholarship recipients, the trip is their first time going to camp. For many, it is their first opportunity to meet kids from around the country. For some, it is their first time leaving NYC. For all of them, the opportunity to experience a week at a premiere action sports training camp is life-changing.

But skateboarding goes much deeper than all of this. Especially for troubled youth trapped within the confines of the inner city, skateboarding gives kids an identity, a purpose, and a meaning to their lives. Because in skateboarding, you will fall. A lot. But you will get up and you will land your trick. And you will keep going. HHF is here to help our kids keep going no matter what.

Click here to add supporting the Harold Hunter Skate Camp to your GOOD "to-do" list.

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Photo (cc) via Flickr user Anthony Albright\n

Harold Hunter Day V image courtesy of Akira Ruiz

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