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Empowering Children, One Skateboard at a Time

Skateistan is using the sport of skateboarding to help at-risk children in Cambodia.
Skateistan is using the sport of skateboarding to help at-risk children in Cambodia.

PHNOM PENH - In Southeast Asia, one development organization is taking the sport of skateboarding into uncharted territory: the streets of Phnom Penh. A group called Skateistan is using the sport to help at-risk children.

Cambodia's first skateboard park

It is late afternoon in the Cambodian capital, and the skateboard park on the edge of the city is taking a battering.

A dozen kids are flying around on skateboards, launching themselves off jumps, teetering on makeshift railings and tumbling at full-speed into a wooden half-pipe.

It is Cambodia’s first skateboard park, tucked away on the grounds of a local independent charity. And, the handful of kids skating are part of the birth of a brand new sport in the country.

That is appealing to young skateboarders like Chea Sophanit. The 15-year-old has been skating for about six months. It has already become his favorite sport.

"When I see the different styles from skateboarding, especially from the best skaters, I just want to be like them, to be a good skater," he said. "This is the reason I just want to practice more and more."

He says when he sees great skateboarders, he wants to be just like them.

Skateboarding, becoming a favorite pastime

The weekly session is organized by a group called Skateistan Cambodia. Starting out as an Afghanistan-based non-profit, Skateistan expanded to Cambodia last year.

In a country where sports like Khmer boxing or soccer are wildly popular, zipping around on a slim wooden skateboard is hardly part of the national culture. But that’s what draws in many of the children the organization is hoping to help.

"It's definitely not a typical Cambodian pastime," said Rory Burke, who works with Skateistan Cambodia. "I think the idea of why skateboarding, is that it's not been done before here. It hasn't been done before at all. We want to use skateboarding as something saying, 'Hey this is something new. This is something different.' That in itself becomes a hook. People see it and they they say, ‘Whoah, what is that?’ and they want to get involved."

Steve Tierney, one of the volunteers, describes working with Skateistan:
Skateistan partners with local groups that work with at-risk youth. On the grounds of the non-profit group Pour un Sourire d’Enfant, or PSE, children attend school and learn a trade. Many of the almost 120 participants, come from troubled backgrounds.

For some, Burke says skateboarding is a chance just to be a kid for a couple of hours a week. But he hopes the program helps to build life skills through sport.

Sang Rotha, 17, is a student at PSE. For him, skateboarding is a release from his frustrations in life or at school.

"Sometimes I don't do well on topics like math. I feel bad when I find it hard to keep up with my lessons," he explained. "So that's why I skateboard to improve my bad feelings.

Rotha says he sometimes does not do well in subjects like math. He says he skates because it helps him overcome the bad feelings he can get from a poor scholastic performance.

He says he has been skateboarding for more than a year now and he has the bumps and bruises to prove it.

"Before I started training, it seemed very easy. But when I start by myself, it was very difficult for me to do it because sometimes I had problems, and there were many tricks when you ride. I had a lot of scars on my body from falling off," Rotha said.

He says, before he started training, he thought it would be easy. Then he realized how hard it was. He says he has many scars from falling off the board.

And, that is part of the lesson for these young skateboarders, says Skateistan’s Rory Burke.

"It’s pretty daunting to get on a skateboard for the first time. When they drop in for the first time and ride some of the ramps, it's pretty scary. It kind of teaches them, hey you’re going to fall down a bunch, but you’ve got to get back up," he said.

Skateistan Cambodia plans to open the country’s first public skate park, later this year in Phnom Penh.