Michelle, was Boards For Bros your first contact with skateboarding?
My first contact with skateboarding was as a teenager growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada way back in the 80’s. My brother Donnie skated and I was always friends with skaters. I would skate in my driveway too. My brother had a Schmitt Stix Monty Nolder Pro Model board (who knew that 30 years later I would be friends with Boards for Bros Founder Paul Schmitt). When my son Wesley was 4 years old, he showed an interest in skating so I happily took him to our local skateshop (World Conspiracy in Huntsville, Alabama). Luckily, I had the money to be able to buy him a skateboard (a skateboard that changed his life). That skateshop and the local park were so supportive of Wesley and I and that was the beginning of my commitment to making sure all kids should be able to try skateboarding, even if they could never afford to buy a board.
Tell me how you got involved with Boards for Bros and what is your role?
When we moved to Tampa in 2013, my son would skate SPoT every single day. I became aware of Boards for Bros just by being around SPoT and chatting with Brian Schaefer. I started out as a Boards for Bros donor and volunteer. In early 2015, Brian approached me and asked if I knew anyone who would be qualified to run Boards for Bros full time. I smiled and raised my hand in the air (I had been involved with various youth-centered nonprofits since 2002 as an employee, volunteer and board member). I sent him a cover letter, a resume, and an essay explaining why I wanted the job. Brian trusted me with this amazing job of full-time Executive Director. My first day on the job was Tampa Pro tent duty in 2015!
What Boards For Bros has grown into is very impressive and highly needed. What are the core goals of Boards for Bros?
Today, we have four main goals: (1) We want all kids to have an opportunity to own a skateboard regardless of their economic situation (2) We want to empower skateboarders to get involved in community service (3) We want schools and youth-centered nonprofits to incorporate skateboarding into their curriculum and programming (4) We want to have the funds to travel to underserved communities in the United States and distribute skateboards where there are no local skateshops.
I am so stoked about everything we accomplished in 2017 - we will have distributed over 1,500 complete skateboards across the United States, as well as Puerto Rico, Honduras, Cuba and Canada. We had over 700 volunteers participate in build days, distribution and “learn to skate” events. We have partnered with awesome organizations such as A.Skate, Next Up Foundation, Bridge to Skate, Boys and Girls Clubs, and youth foster care organizations. We won a $10,000 Sheckler Foundation Grant that allowed us to make our “Boards for Bros On The Road” dream a reality by travelling with Bess the Book Bus to stops in New Jersey and Maryland, distributing over 250 skateboards and over 1,000 books to underserved youth.
Where has Boards For Bros taken you around the country?
Thanks to my husband’s frequent flyer miles, I have managed to travel and set up the Boards for Bros tent at Damn Am stops in Atlanta, Chicago, Costa Mesa, and attend Boards for Bros events in Huntington Beach. The Sheckler Foundation Grant enabled us to drive a van full of skateboards up to New Jersey and Maryland with stops along the way. The goal is to get our “Boards for Bros On The Road” plans funded for 2018 so we can join Bess the Book Bus on a leg of her national tour and bring skateboards to Texas and the Navajo Nation.
What's the kind of responses you get from the kids in the communities you've given skateboards to?
In a nutshell - instant happiness and gratitude along with a disbelief that they get to keep the skateboard. That is why we started the tradition of putting the kids names on their skateboards even before they skate it! We always have paint pens on site so the kids can put their names on their boards and decorate their grip tape.
At a recent A.Skate event (autism-friendly skateboarding clinic), I got to approach parents and tell them that they can keep the skateboard their child borrowed for the clinic and there were tears, and hugs and every emotional thank-yous. So many families of special needs youth are so strapped for funds that recreation is hard to fund which is tragic because things like skateboarding are fantastic therapy aids. The gift of a free skateboard can open up a whole new world for a family.
We recently gave 70 kids in an afterschool program in Baltimore their own skateboard so that they can use the skatepark attached to their community center. These kids have been attending this afterschool program for years and were always just limited to watching skaters from other neighborhoods use their park! Now they can use their skatepark! The kids were dropping in immediately with no coaching - their teachers said it was because they watched others skate for years and had figured it out in their head before they got their own boards. Our impact is real, it is lasting and it changes people’s lives.
People say that if you love your job and what you do, it's really not going to work. Do you enjoy what you do Michelle and do you find it rewarding?
I think I have the best job in the world! Honestly. I love Boards for Bros and it is extremely rewarding. I love working with skaters. I love opening people’s eyes to the positive impact that skateboarding can have on people’s lives. I have had the honor of being an advocate for skateboarding and skateboarders. We help the kids who don’t fit into the existing baseball/football/basketball programs and give them a real recreational option too! So many kids don’t want to play a team sport or cannot afford or commit to a full season of anything and we take care of them and show that they are valued too. I help skateboarders become community organizers, fundraisers and donors. I love it and I love the people I have met on this journey.
Boards for Bros is expanding, where else are you all based at?
Boards for Bros HQ is at Skatepark of Tampa - where it all began! We have chapters in North Carolina, New Jersey, New York City, Chicago and California. With our “Boards for Bros On the Road” program we hope to criss-cross the country every three years and have distributions in every state. Additionally, we do distributions in other countries when we have volunteers able to pay for their travel and sponsors lined up to cover our shipping expenses. In 2017 we did distributions in Cuba, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and Canada.
How does Boards for Bros get skateboards, wheels, trucks, hardware, and griptape to give away to the youth and how can other companies get involved?
We are fortunate to have hundreds of supportive skateboarders who drop off donations new or gently used skateboard parts at various collection centers across the country. Additionally, we have been the recipient of some very generous donations of misprints or less-than-perfect stock from various skate companies. Since we are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, all donations are acknowledged with a donation receipt and can be claimed as a charitable donation. We are always ready, willing and able to accept donations and that can be arranged by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org
What companies or individuals have consistently participated in Boards for Bros?
We could not exist without the support of Skatepark of Tampa and Brian Schaefer. His generosity has covered our operating expenses and allowed us to grow into a year-round, national operation. Additionally, generous contributions from Vans, Mini Logo, Schmitt Stix and Ocean Avenue Distribution have always kept us going when we needed the help. We have also had tremendous support from the family of Matt Woods (a SPoT employee who passed away). On the nonprofit side, grants from the Sheckler Foundation and the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay have helped us develop the tools we need in place to grow and reach our goals.
I've seen your entire family helping out with the Boards for Bros effort at skate contests and events around Florida, you don't put them in headlocks to get their help do you?
Headlocks are not necessary for a number of reasons. Firstly, we honestly like to hang out together! Since I work so many weekends and my husband travels during the week, skate events are often our best opportunity to see each other and get caught up. I think having my whole family around has made the Boards for Bros tent an awesome gathering space for people to stop by, support the cause and support each other. The people at these events have become like family to us and we are so happy to see everyone and work with them on Boards for Bros projects.
How is the decision made to go to a certain community to give the gift of skateboarding and have you hit any communities more than once?
We like to focus on distributing skateboards to underserved neighborhoods, especially those in the vicinity of public skateparks. If the kids living around public skateparks do not have skateboards to use their local park, it is bad for the skatepark vibe and it is unfair for the local kids. We are so stoked right now to have an ongoing relationship with the Campbell Park neighborhood in St. Petersburg. We have had several targeted distributions there since December 2015 in preparation for the opening of a huge free public skatepark there in 2018. It is important to Boards for Bros that the kids be excited about skateboarding and have the right equipment in their hands on opening day. We want as many local kids using that facility as visiting skaters. We are facilitating the development of a strong community of old skaters and new ones so that they can build a strong local scene with local kids. Our support of that neighborhood will go on for years to come thanks to the support of St. Pete businesses and organizations such as the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce.
What kind of things can we look forward to coming from Boards For Bros?
We will keep growing strong, healthy skate communities across the United States through our regional chapters and our road trips. We are going to keep supporting equipment distributions in other countries (as long as funding permits). I can’t really share many details yet as we are working on our funding, but in 2018 we will make big strides in the realm of education - we are developing programs to help schools incorporate skateboarding and skateboarding business-related programming into their school activities.
Any shout outs or thank yous?
We simply could not do what we do without: Brian Schaefer, Skatepark of Tampa, Brian Ocean Avenue Distribution, Vans (HQ and local stores), Mini Logo/SkateOne. Our outstanding volunteers and donors, especially our Ambassadors Ryan Vanderweel, Sarah Turner, Paul Schmitt (B4B-CA), Ed Womble (B4B-NC), Jake McNichol, Derek Rinaldi (B4B-NJ), Christopher Miller (B4B-NY), Jeff Conyers (B4B-IL) and pro skater TJ Rogers.
I personally want to thank Cleo Coney (one of the first people I met when I started my job). His constant kindness and support in those early days had a huge impact on me and I will always be grateful.