Raising a happy healthy child remains a daunting challenge for everyone, regardless of means. Kids face bullying, abuse, drugs, sedentary lifestyle, among many other challenges. One of the best ways to help children and teenagers navigate life’s inevitable bumps is to help them find activities they are passionate about, that help them focus on positive aspects like perseverance, learning and a healthy lifestyle.
A common approach to channel their focus is through extracurricular activities, such as sports, lessons, and volunteer work. Through our work with Skateparks for Dallas, we have come across an amazing DFW husband & wife team, Josh and Sarah Hurley. Josh, a pro skateboarder and owner of Now Skateboards, and Sarah, an advocate for children and families dealing with behavioral and emotional issues, launched a program called SwitchLife.org. This innovative initiative gives kids an opportunity to learn important life skills, while teaching them to skateboard. We had a chance to interview Sarah to learn about their program SwitchLife.org, and their experience with skateboarding.
Skateparks for Dallas: What is the SwitchLife mission, and what does the program seek to accomplish in the community?
Switchlife provides free skateboarding lessons and a goal-setting curriculum for underserved youth in order to combat the effects of poverty, addiction, lack of direction, and generational cycles of dysfunction. Our goal is to provide free programming for kids so they have a safe, structured place to go outside of school where they can interact with strong mentors who guide them to make better decisions and create new life maps for themselves.
Skateparks for Dallas: Can you give an example of a typical lesson?
We start each lesson with circle time, talking about what might be up for us that week. Then, we stretch and do yoga for about 15 minutes to work on flexibility and balance and also our mental clarity. After that, the kids gear up and we usually start with some relay type games. Then, we work on skills. We meet each kid where they are, to help them master whatever skill they're working on. Then, break time for water and a snack. After that, we do some group skill time where we all support and encourage each other as we try new things. This is the time we spend talking about what it takes to break through mental barriers, overcoming fear, etc. The last part of class is spent cleaning up our stuff, and we have the kids all clean the gear and pack it away neatly. Then we circle up again to talk about the highs and lows of the last week and what goals we want to accomplish in the coming week and beyond. A lot of sad and amazing stuff comes up in these talks. It's my favorite part of class most weeks.
Skateparks for Dallas: How does skateboarding fit into the program?
Skateboarding is at the center of our program for several reasons. One, it attracts kids to the program, it's the tool that gets them in front of us. Two, skateboarding has no class, race, or gender lines. It's a sport available to everyone and requires no team fees or expensive equipment. Three, the self mastery coming from being persistent on a board serves people throughout their lives. You're never going to be the best, there's always something new to learn, more to master. You have to fall a hundred times before you're successful. We're literally teaching kids how to fall and get back up, teaching them the value in giving it a hundred tries before feeling the joy of success. Our program has four components that we teach: Prepare, Practice, Progress, and Persist. We believe these are the things we need to learn to set and achieve goals, we just do it on skateboards! In addition, there are obviously the physical benefits. Half of the kids in Dallas county are classified as obese! This is a travesty, and another reason Josh and I are trying to get kids back outside, playing and being kids! I also learned recently there is a neurological component between having good body core strength and balance and better behavior in class. This may be why we're seeing better academic results in some of our students.
Skateparks for Dallas: But some people may have stereotypes about skateboarding and skateboarders, can you tell us your perspective?
As a typical suburban mom, I totally had stereotypes! As a matter of fact, Josh asked me out a few times and I kept saying no because I was convinced he was probably some loser skater who still lived with his mom. I found out on our first date how wrong I was. Josh, like many skaters, has a huge heart for his community, a strong faith, and an overwhelming desire to make the world a better place. When I started spending more time at skate parks and events, I saw how connected the skateboarders all were, how they took care of each other and the city parks they use. For instance, they always make a point of cleaning up the trash they leave behind and making sure the younger guys do, too. If someone in the skate family gets sick, there's a fundraiser. The older guys look out for the little ones, teaching and sharing knowledge. The skateboarding community is a FAMILY. That part was unexpected and really beautiful to see.
Skateparks for Dallas: SwitchLife is centered on helping kids, can you tell us about some of the outreach you have done and feedback you have received from parents and kids?
When we originally launched Switchlife, we ran weekend programming where our instructors taught free lessons at community events. We provided lessons for tons of kids from all walks of life. Special needs kids, homeless teens, youth in foster care, and also typical suburban families benefited from our program. Josh and I were blown away by the smiles we saw on faces and the enthusiasm people showed for what we were doing. One particularly memorable event happened to have a ton of single moms show up the day before Mother's Day. We were able to put all these kids on boards and have this AMAZING day for these single parent families at no cost to them and the moms were so thankful. I think that was the moment we knew we had something big to share. Also, we're hearing from some of the kids we teach regularly that their behavior is improving and it is helping them get better grades in school. This part we expected, but it really blew us away when it actually started happening. Recently, we instituted a weekly after-school program in Haltom City in October 2017 and we'll also be teaching teens at a Dallas domestic violence shelter starting in January 2018. Our goal is to have free programming all over the metroplex every day of the week, and to also provide summer camps and clinics when school isn't in session.
Skateparks for Dallas: Dallas included a concrete skatepark in the recently passed Parks bond. Once that park is built, how do you see that park benefiting the city and kids you have worked with in your program?
I think as long as the city makes these parks easily accessible to people in the community, it's going to be a great thing. Many of our partners in South Dallas and other underserved areas lament the fact that they have no skate park that's accessible. I know the kids in those areas would use a park often, especially if it's easy to get to with public transportation. On a recent project we did with the Dallas All Stars, we went out into South Dallas and knocked on doors to get a feel for what the community's needs were. Repeatedly, we heard the strong need for outdoor activities for kids and mentorship programs. Having a park in Dallas gives Switchlife an even greater reach with our programming and provides the citizens what they're asking for.
(editors note: the City of Dallas Parks & Recreation is planning on making the skatepark accessible via DART, by placing the park near Bachman Lake Station. Learn more here.)
Skateparks for Dallas: How long ago did you start SwitchLife? Can you tell us how you grew the program from an idea to working with city’s to help fill a need in the community?
We started Switchlife in October, 2016. Our official launch was my grandmother's birthday, and we got married in October 2017 on the one year anniversary of the program. I think our early successes are seeing the way the community welcomed and responded to us so positively. There's so much excitement around what we do. We have generous donors who keep us afloat and help with our operational costs so we can provide our program (although there never seems to be enough money when you're running a nonprofit, and we always have kids in our program who need something). People really seem to love what we're doing, and want to get behind it. Personally, Josh and I are humbled by the way Switchlife is received. The growth is phenomenal.
Skateparks for Dallas: Do kids have to have their own equipment to participate?
A donor provided the money for all our boards and pads when we started, then we recently had someone donate for larger sizes of gear so we have a wider variety. All of our equipment is provided to the kids at each clinic at no cost to them through donor contributions. We'd love to get to a place where we can send kids home with boards. Almost none of the kids in our Haltom City program have boards or safety gear at home to practice with.
All photos courtesy SwitchLife.org