Justin Darrow is having a hard time focusing on our interview.
All around him, a flurry of skateboarders—some professional, some alarmingly shaky—keep vying for his attention.
"So many people were brought together," says the soft-spoken 27-year-old. "That's what's so great about skateboarding."
A resident of the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, Darrow is the First Nations ambassador for Skateboards for Hope, a Quebec-based organization that refurbishes old decks and gives them to children in need.
It's Sunday, May 31st, and the group have turned an empty Kanesatake school lot into a makeshift skate park, and local kids have been invited to come hang out with pro skaters and try their luck on the ramps and rails. Some are showing off and practicing new tricks; others are riding for the first time, pint-sized wannabes boldly throwing themselves off jumps as worried parents watch and wince.
"Used boards, old boards, long boards, we just collect them and try to redistribute them to communities, to get youth into skateboarding or to keep them skateboarding," he explains.
Darrow speaks of his sport with a glimmer in his eye, and while he's "not pro or anything," his enthusiasm is magnetic. "All the things I learned through skateboarding, like hard work and patience and commitment, facing your fears, all those morals you can't quite learn in a school room setting."
As he touts the merits of the program, he notices a young boy watching him talk. The child would like a skateboard, please, and so Darrow interrupts the conversation to show him what's available.
He comes back a moment later, grinning triumphantly. "I just gave away my own board!" Then, a moment of apprehension: "Well, looks like my skateboarding for today is done."
Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon says that for local youth, Darrow has become an inspiration.
"Justin is a very energetic young man. It's thanks to him that this whole thing was pulled together," says Simon, watching over the event with a broad smile. "Kids are benefitting, and I'm sure it's going to be a long fruitful partnership that Justin has brought into our community."
The Grand Chief says the gathering is a welcome change of pace. Lately, his day-to-day has been devoted to less cheerful endeavours: Kanesatake is preparing for the 25th anniversary of the Oka Crisis, a violent land dispute between Oka residents and the Mohawk community that stretched over three months, starting in July of 1990. It's a milestone that brings a lot of pain to the surface, he says, so he's grateful for the positivity Darrow's event has brought.
He explains that many Kanesatake families struggle to get by. "There's a big need, unfortunately. So it's nice to know that organizations like this exist."
"Anything that would take a child away from a drug dealer, it's always good, it's worth its weight in gold."
In Canada, the Assembly of First Nations estimate that one in every four aboriginal children lives in poverty. Only one third of Aboriginal youth graduate from high school, and youth suicide rates are up to seven times higher than non-Aboriginal youth. Substance abuse and organized crime have also been particularly acute problems in Kanesatake, which has seen several RCMP drug raids over the years.
The fact that the odds are stacked against him are not lost on Darrow.
"When I grew up skateboarding, I had times where I couldn't have a board because food was more important, or clothing was more important," he says. "I had to work hard to be able to buy a board. But when money was low, I was lucky to have friends that would give me their boards, used boards."
And without the sport? "I could be out doing gang-related stuff, or dead in a ditch."
"I would be just another statistic. I would just be another John Doe."
Next, Darrow wants to bring the project to Kahnawake, another Montreal-area reserve, before expanding into the rest of the province. "We're gonna start small first but we do have big plans."
Skateboard for Hope founder Betty Esperanza calls Darrow the "perfect person" to bring her program to First Nations communities.
"He's a great spokesperson for this sport, but also a great human being. I can't say enough good things about him."
Esperanza founded Skateboards for Hope in 2005 and has since sent more than 300 used boards to underprivileged children in Cuba and Uganda. The Kanesatake Skateboard Pow Wow marks the first event her team has organized on home soil.
For the Grand Chief, the effort is a success. He says a new, permanent skate park would bring a lot to the community, ("like higher insurance premiums," he jokes, watching kids wipe out) and says he plans to seek out the required funding.
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