“I’ve never seen so many foster kids in one place smiling. What are you doing?” asked Arizona Department of Child Safety Director Mike Faust. He was speaking to Michael Shapiro, skater, former teacher and executive director of the +swappow PLUS Foundation, which uses skateboarding to teach life skills to kids in foster care.
Nearby, a group of youth wearing shiny new helmets balanced with varying levels of certainty on varnished boards during an event last Christmas.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shapiro and his staff had held one-day clinics in locations around the state for roughly 500 youth each year, where they were taught to build, maintain and ride skateboards safely. Participants left the sessions with quality boards and helmets, donated by local board makers, and a new message they may not have heard often enough: that falling isn’t failing.
Now, as the pandemic continues to rage and life-as-usual is impossible, Shapiro and his team have devised a new way of delivering their clinics — through a 12-week virtual academy with weekly video lessons and one-on-one or small-group coaching sessions. Twenty youth participated in the summer pilot program and, Shapiro said, the structure allowed them to go deeper into the life lessons aspect of their program than they could during the day clinics.
The lessons for the virtual academy were inspired by Shapiro’s weekly visits with an incarcerated teen and former program participant who was jailed for 9 months. Over that time, Shapiro helped the young man realign himself with his goals.
Despite the lack of in-person instruction, youth in the virtual program receive boards and helmets and instructions for things to work on at home, and can still benefit from the program.
“Kids who feel like misfits or outsiders tend to gravitate toward skateboarding, they tend to like the freedom of it,” Shapiro said. “It’s a little dangerous, it’s accessible, you don’t have to have a uniform and get driven to a practice every week. You can just skateboard in your front yard.”
There’s a therapeutic aspect to skateboarding as well, Shapiro said. “When you’re present and in the moment, you’re not thinking about all the bad stuff that’s happened to you or maybe a future that’s uncertain. You’re just in the moment. I think that’s really powerful.”
Shapiro and +swappow PLUS founder Joe Dunnigan have been in the skating world and working with kids for about three decades. Dunnigan originally founded +swappow as a gear-trading platform, similar to eBay but for board sports.
Today that concept has evolved, and from it +swappow PLUS Foundation emerged as a fiscally sponsored nonprofit under the Arizona Community Foundation, operating on about $75,000 a year. While it appeals to kids through sport, at its core it’s about teaching important skills to help them better manage their emotions, such as swapping out unhelpful habits and behaviors, and understanding that how you spend your time matters if you want to achieve something in your life.
Encouraged by studies examining what researchers are calling the neuroscience of “flow,” the program’s founders believe kids find their own internal drive to succeed when the physical action of skating is combined with a sense of accomplishment. “That’s the number one question as a teacher: how do I make these kids learn intrinsically and not extrinsically, not because I’m telling them to do it but because they want to do it themselves?” Shapiro said. “Skateboarding and surfing and action sports are some of the best things for that.”
For Judy Watson’s girls, the program is helping them move not only through their traumatic pasts but also through the normal challenges of growing up. Watson, who’s been a foster parent for 35 years, adopted her 11- and 14-year-old daughters this summer and signed them both up for the 12-week virtual academy.
“The kids open up about things to him that they wouldn’t with their counselors,” she said of Shapiro’s connection with her daughters who spent half their lives in foster care. “They don’t even know they’re being counseled. I see my older one look at the life lessons and think about them.
Watson herself never found skateboarding appealing, but she said it’s important that parents not limit kids to the things they personally find interesting. “Don’t box your kids into your lifestyle,” Watson said. “I took my kids to learn skateboarding and we got so much more.”
Shapiro and his team are thinking about how to grow the program by developing a curriculum that offers beginning, intermediate, advanced programming so kids can stay involved longer. Ideally, advanced-level kids would be skating at a competitive level — a goal inspired by the movement to get the sport into the Olympics and onto college campuses. And beyond that, the program hopes to give kids opportunities to be mentors themselves, and to meet with others in the community who work in a field the kids have interest in.
“We like to say ‘validation is not just for parking,’” Shapiro said. “These kids need to hear a voice that says ‘you’re important, there’s a purpose for your life.’”