In George Ward Park, there is a stretch of land, about 20,000 square feet, where not much can grow. At a glance, a park-goer wouldn’t think this the site of a battle happening within Birmingham, and possibly, that the outcome of that battle will stand as another bastion in the city’s ever-growing cultural revitalization.
This site is possibly what soon may be city’s first official ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible skatepark: the Birmingham A.skate Plaza.
The skatepark’s construction will not only be a major victory for the A.skate Foundation — a nonprofit organization that uses the sport as a means of therapy with children diagnosed with autism — but for all skateboarders. For more than two decades Birmingham has been a city without any official park where fans of the sport can get together and do what they want to do: skate.
The blame is on the unfortunate stereotypes that have lingered on since skateboarding’s emergence back in the 1980s. The depiction of skateboarders as rough-hewn youths using their skateboards as a means to commit petty vandalism is one familiar to most.
Peter Karvonen knows about it all too well from his 25 years of experience as a skater, 19 of which he has spent as the owner and proprietor of Faith Skate Supply, a storefront that is largely responsible for having cultivated the community that flourishes now within in the city.
“It’s a little heartbreaking,” Karvonen says, “when you’re out skating and you get kicked out of everywhere, making you feel like you are committing a crime.”
Karvonen has spent the past decade trying to engender the city’s interest in building a public skatepark, a practice that has become increasingly common throughout the rest of the country. In the past eight years alone, more than 6,000 parks were constructed throughout the U.S.
Despite setbacks that have arisen along the way, Karvonen hasn’t given up on his dream of seeing a space finally built where kids can skate safely, away from the debris and cracks in the road that are a cause for many of the injuries sustained within the sport.
His dream grew even bigger when he met Crys Worley and her son, Sasha. Sasha was born with autism, a disorder which requires a lifetime of treatment and care. Worley bought her son a skateboard from Faith Skate Supply, and then, by whatever happenstance is at work in these matters, her path crossed with Karvonen’s again when taking her two sons to a skatepark in Homewood. And even though the two would eventually become engaged, the true blessing is what happened with Sasha.
“I started taking Sasha skating,” Karvonen reminisces, “and immediately we saw how he and his brother got along better. It calmed him down. Soothed him.”
Worley was thrilled by the developments. She started posting videos of Sasha skating in online forums dedicated to family members with autism, and the response was immediate: people everywhere wanted in on the action. Soon it became a common practice that whenever Karvonen and Worley went to travel out of state, they would stop by skateparks along the way, posting the time and location online and inviting anyone who wanted to come out and skate with them. These small gatherings soon turned into to full-on clinics.
“We were in Eerie, Colorado,” Karvonen says, “and we serviced 50 kids that day. The kids were sparked. The families were crying; they were just so excited.”
And like that, the A.skate Foundation was born in April of 2010, an organization founded by Karvonen and Worley, now with more 1,ooo volunteers in different cities, not just across the country but also in Ireland and, most recently, Paris.
“A.skate was a complete accident, and it wasn’t something that I was mentally or financially ready to take on,” says Worley. “The experience as a whole has been crazy but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Sidewalk Film Festival recently premiered a documentary about her and the foundation’s efforts called Heartchild. A.skate has also found admirers and supporters in high places, such as the Tony Hawk Foundation and Vans Apparel. In fact, Vans has not only donated slip-on skating shoes for these clinics, but are also designing and releasing their own brand of these accessible shoes in conjunction with Faith Skate Supply.
“We have grown so big that people think we are a multi-million dollar organization with staff,” Worley says with a laugh. “We have set up over 30 successful programs all over the world and have worked with thousands of children with autism over the past few years on a peanut budget. I am very proud of that.”
In Birmingham alone A.skate has more than 50 adult and teenager volunteers who help with local clinics, and yet they have no current park within the city to hold these clinics. Up until now, the foundation has relied mostly on the generosity of churches who offer up their parking lots as places to meet. With the continual governmental upheavals the city has gone through in the past decade, according to Karvonen and Worley, little effort has been spent to make a public skatepark, one which would not only be used for the clinics but also as a venue for professional skaters to perform, bringing in many of the companies that thrive on the lucrative skating industry.
“We considered moving our family to a city and state where our program was appreciated, and the officials pushed for our program,” Worley admits, “but the fact is, Birmingham is our home, and we do not want to give up on our home.”
And their dedication is finally paying off as several powerful friends have stepped forward, including Pepsi, who awarded A.skate $50,000. Another important ally is the city’s current Parks and Rec Director, Stanley Robinson. Robinson has been a vocal advocate for the skatepark, helping the foundation to make its new home in George Ward Park a reality.
On July 1, the Glen Iris Neighborhood Association had its highest attendance ever, as one hundred people came out to vote for whether or not the community was in favor of the skatepark. The motion passed with an overwhelming 52-9, triggering a heightened excitement in skaters all throughout the greater Birmingham area.
“This is a great victory for us.” says 25-year-old Jake Remington. “Birmingham is finally accepting us skateboarders as a community and giving us a place to do what we love. With the new ballpark and the new breweries, Birmingham is becoming a greater, more accepting and inviting city.”
Even with the need to still gather the $400,000 necessary to construct the park, A.skate is optimistic about groundbreaking within a year’s time. Skating has done anything but diminish as a popular cultural phenomenon, and hearing Karvonen speak about the allure of skateboarding and how it makes for such a helpful therapy for everyone, it’s easy to understand why:
“It teaches you patience, persistence and accomplishment,” he says. “You can see it Sasha’s eyes. It’s the feeling I got when I first started skating.”