By Léo Azambuja

Mark Cooper, of Kaua‘i Skate ‘Ohana, helps children to safely skateboard the renovated Kapa‘a Skatepark. Photo by Léo Azambuja

It’s a cold, cloudy Saturday morning, right in the middle of winter, a perfect day for kids to stay home and play video games. But not these kids. About a dozen youngsters showed up for a free beginners skateboarding clinic at the rollerskate rink next to the Kapa‘a Skatepark.

“This is basically to teach people, kids specifically, how to start your skateboarding experience safely,” said Mark Cooper, president and executive director of the nonprofit Kaua‘i Skate ‘Ohana. “It’s really focused on making sure your equipment is properly put on, how to stand and push and glide properly on your skateboard, and how to stop and fall safely.”

Kaua‘i Skate ‘Ohana is taking advantage of the newly renovated Kapa‘a Skatepark — inaugurated right before the turn of the year — to use skateboarding as a platform to improve the lives of Kaua‘i’s local youth. In the last few weeks, KSO has done pop-up jams at the skatepark and has taught several free clinics to safely introduce kids to the sport. The clinics are all about promoting positive reinforcement, friendship, kindness, and of course, safety.

The original Kapa‘a Skatepark opened in 1998, paved with asphalt and later capped with tennis court surfacing, which later cracked in many spots. In the inner circles of local skateboarding, the park was commonly called the Kapa‘a Crust. KSO had been asking the county administration and the Kaua‘i County Council for support to renovate the park and build other skateparks around the island for nearly 10 years. The former administration even drafted plans and presented them to the council, but those plans were never materialized.

Until recently.

In October, Mayor Derek Kawakami opened a pop-up skatepark at the Līhu‘e Civic Center parking lot, next to the county’s Pi‘ikoi Building. Meanwhile, a coordinated effort by county officials, local nonprofits, private investors and volunteers fast-tracked the process for the much-needed renovation of the old Kapa‘a Skatepark. In late November, builders broke ground at the park, and on Dec. 30, the park was already open to the public.

Photo by Keri Cooper

Since the newly renovated Kapa‘a Skatepark opened, it has been attracting large daily crowds of skateboarders — among them a lot of children — from all corners of the island.

“This is a real growth period right now for me and for Kaua‘i Skate ‘Ohana,” said Cooper, who founded KSO in August 2010. “We’ve left our fingerprint throughout the years with skateboarding, like the Anaina Hou ramp; we put that there and we’ve done contests here and there. But this new park is a real spark for us and has given us a lot of momentum.”

To Cooper, a life-long skateboarder and surfer, the new skate park is much more than just a dream come true; it’s a prime opportunity for KSO to enrich and improve the lives of local youth, and also to educate the community on the value of skateboarding. He said the nonprofit is committed to enrich Kaua‘i’s youth by using skateboarding as a tool rather than the end.

“Ideally, down the road, I foresee us being a big mentorship, as far as being able to identify kids in need. I’m talking barefoot kids that don’t have the ability to even get to a skate spot, or to be able to get to (skateboarding) equipment,” he said.

Cooper envisions KSO partnering with social workers throughout the island to identify where and who those kids are, and to mentor and introduce them to other kids to promote positive experiences.

Photo by Léo Azambuja

“We want to be able to take them to lunch, to be able to buy them shoes if they need, to be able to teach them coping mechanisms with stress, give them my phone number or someone to call in times of need, like, really mentor these kids to be able to shift the direction of their lives, so they grow up to be loving community members, as opposed to suicidal drug addicts,” said Cooper, adding the reality of Kaua‘i is that the island has one of the highest suicide rates in the country.

“Our goal is to actually tap into that and change that, to change the direction of these kids’ lives that are in those positions to easily fall into drug abuse, alcohol abuse, which eventually leads to depression and suicide. So really, Kaua‘i Skate ‘Ohana is all about enriching Kaua‘i’s youth, and then skateboarding is our tool to do that,” he said.

The old saying, “Skateboarding is not a crime,” has never been more evident on Kaua‘i to those who were unfamiliar with the skateboarding culture. Cooper said since the new skatepark opened, he heard from countless parents how much skateboarding has improved the lives of their children.

“Our role now is just to encourage and elevate the skate community here to really be a positive influence to kids,” Cooper said of the nonprofit organization. “Another main goal for Kaua‘i Skate ‘Ohana is to change the perception of the community on what skateboarders actually are.”

It took a lot of community partnerships to make the skatepark renovation a reality.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Darin DePasquale, founder of the Kaua‘i Skatepark Foundation, had been spearheading an islandwide group effort to evaluate potential sites and seek funds to build skateparks on Kaua‘i, according to Cooper.

Photo by Léo Azambuja

“So then COVID hit, and the whole thing just stopped,” Cooper said.

A few months into the pandemic, Kaua‘i County Council member Luke Evslin called Gregg Pacilio, a skateboarder and a member of KSO and the skatepark foundation, to give him the heads up about the CARES Act federal grant that was about to become available.

It seemed like a perfect opportunity for KSO to apply for the grant, but the nonprofit, despite being around for a decade, had never landed a large grant, which disqualified them from the process. So Pacilio sought Fran Becker, the executive director of the nonprofit Na Lei Wili Area Health Education Center. Becker had a vast experience in grant writing. Through her nonprofit, she recruits students into health and wellness careers. She has partnered with Pacilio, a physical therapist and the rehab director at Kaua‘i Veterans Memorial Hospital on the Westside, for many years to help kids to become interested in physical therapy.

With everything in order, Cooper, Pacilio, DePasquale and Becker all contributed to write the grant request, which secured $250,000 to renovate the Kapa‘a Skatepark. The money was enough for the first phase of the renovation, which covers 4,010 square feet. DePasquale fundraised another $104,000 (donated by the Chan Zuckerberg Kaua‘i Fund, The Tony Foundation, The Skatepark Project, and private individual and corporate donors) for the second phase, covering 2,195 feet. This coordinated effort allowed both phases to be completed at once.

Photo by Léo Azambuja

“Fran is an incredible woman, and I’m so lucky to have her being able to mentor and guide me through being the executive director of a nonprofit,” Cooper said of Becker.

On her final report, required by the grant process, Becker identified four major benefits of the skatepark for the community.

The venue itself is a benefit, as it is the only skatepark on the island, attracting a daily average of 65 skateboarders of all skill levels and ages during peak times, from mid-morning to sunset. Many users catch The Kaua‘i Bus, which has a stop in front of the park.

A survey showed the skatepark helps to improve mental health, a criteria for the grant. Before the skatepark’s renovation, nearly 25 percent of the 135 skateboarders surveyed at the park, ages 4 to 65, scored between zero and 11 on a mental health scale of zero (not healthy) to 21 (healthy). After the skatepark was built, their score increased to between 16 and 21.

Photo by Léo Azambuja

“We were really surprised to see the numbers in the mental health prior and the improvement after (the park’s renovation),” Becker said.

Community ownership was another benefit. William Trujillo, chief of planning and development at the County Department of Parks and Recreation, told the community the skatepark was theirs to take stewardship, according to Becker. This prompted community members to rally and talk about how they would take care of the skatepark.

Finally, the park promoted several community partnerships. Na Lei Wili AHEC expanded its role by partnering with KSO for continuing community events highlighting skateboarding. The free beginners’ clinic is ongoing, and there will be week-long skateboarding camps throughout the year. KSO also partnered with the rollerskating community to use their rink and storage facility for the clinics. Many community members and businesses have donated money for the park’s completion, and continue to donate gear for the clinics. And when the park was being built, several people and businesses donated free lunches for the workers.

Cooper said KSO is committed to keep the park clean, and to make sure it is a positive environment for the kids, without drugs and alcohol.

Photo by Léo Azambuja

“There is a huge community feeling down there. We’ve made sure to introduce ourselves and cheer everyone to a point where now no one really shows up there and walks around stone-faced, not acknowledging anyone,” Cooper said. “Everyone cheers for someone at their own skill level. So it’s a real positive vibe that’s going on there right now.”

KSO, he said, is now set up to do a pop-up jam once a month, usually on a Friday evening.

“We’re playing music, we’re grilling hamburgers and hot-dogs for free,” he said. “We’re also giving out prizes, not to the best skaters, but to kids who exhibit great attitudes.”

They’re also spotting kids who may not have the best equipment, or that shy kid in the corner, scared to roll around and looking intimidated, Cooper said.

“We grab them and give them new decks and wheels,” said Cooper, adding this is really about helping the kids who need it the most.

Visit kauaiskateohana.com to sign up for the free clinics and stay up-to-date with events at the Kapa‘a Skatepark and other skateboarding news around Kaua‘i.

 

 

 


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