By Stella Carrasco and Collin Lessing, JVA Consulting
Recently, we (“we” being JVA’s Stella Carrasco and Collin Lessing) found ourselves equally excited for an emerging movement and partnership to prevent suicide among Native American youth that was marked with a skateboarding event in Denver, and we wanted to share our excitement on Nonprofit Street. One Gathering—Skate for Life is a skateboarding competition organized by the Stronghold Society in partnership with Wounded Knee Skate Boards. The event unites Denver youth of all backgrounds with Native American youth from Colorado and surrounding states. It is a means of outreach to educate local communities on the social, health and life challenges Native American youth face today, including the heavy toll youth suicide has taken on native communities.
While we share an interest in this event, we both have different reasons for our interest. For Stella, who lived for 20 years on her home reservation in South Dakota, the reasons were close to home: Stella has seen and felt the intense grief and mourning of losing children to the act of suicide. Collin, on the other hand, is a volunteer with an organization that works with at-risk youth, an avid longboarder and a recreational student of Native American history. When we attended the Skate for Life event on July 14, however, the feelings we experienced were the same—we were happy and impressed to see children of all ages and backgrounds coming together in community at the Denver Skate Park—a safe place where children could try something challenging, fall down and be encouraged to get back up and try again.
We also learned that the partnership of Wounded Knee Skateboards and Stronghold Society doesn’t just benefit Denver—it extends onto the reservations through Wounded Knee 4-Directions Skateparks. Jim Murphy, the founder of Wounded Knee Skateboards, has long held a vision of developing skate parks on Indian reservations. The first of these parks was completed on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 2011.
The skate park in Pine Ridge is a path to recovery and empowerment for many of the Pine Ridge youth. While partnerships with Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam, the Tony Hawk Foundation and VANs Off The Wall helped fund the construction, youth living on the reservation gave input on the design of the skate park and contributed their own muscle and sweat in its construction. As such, the Pine Ridge skate park belongs to the youth, is maintained by the youth and is a source of pride for the youth and the community.
“I’ve been working to strengthen families for years,” said Tiny DeCory, coordinator for the Sweet Grass Project, an Oglala Sioux tribe suicide prevention initiative. “Now I go to the skate park at Pine Ridge and see families. A kid swoops into the bowl and looks back at his parents and they smile. The older kids also help the younger kids, fostering a culture of leadership.” And it already seems like the skate parks are working: While “ideations of suicide still occur,” says Tiny, “with the opening of the skate park, we have a whole new culture of kids who have something to do. Completions of suicide have actually slowed down.”
It is the goal of the Stronghold Society, Wounded Knee Skateboards and their partners to build a skate park on a different reservation every year as a way to address the epidemic of youth suicide that is impacting today’s Indian nations. Stella and Collin will be watching and cheering as they work toward this exciting goal, and we hope you will, too!