By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
When Michael Shapiro attended Grand Canyon University almost 20 years ago, he and his roommate were two of the few skateboarders – if not the only two skateboarders – on campus. They would weave past one-story, brown-bricked Ethington Theatre, Kaibab and North Rim Apartments, the wind in their hair and freedom in their hearts as they headed to class.
“We were the only people that skated on the entire campus – that’s what’s crazy. It blows me away that now there’s a skatepark,” he said.
Shapiro felt a rush of nostalgia when he stepped back onto campus for the first time in two decades and saw a precious few familiar buildings scattered among the four- and five-story modern structures that now dominate the booming University of about 23,000 ground students, many of whom are skateboarders.
These days, you can’t step onto the Promenade without a skateboarder zooming past.
Shapiro, Executive Director of the +swappow PLUS Foundation, was on campus with the nonprofit organization Saturday for its Share the Ride tent sale on the lawn of GCU Hotel.
Peppered on the lawn: tables upon tables of shoes, T-shirts, skateboards, surfboards and boogie boards of all kinds, the proceeds of which will go toward the operation of the organization.
The nonprofit helps foster children thrive by teaching them how to skateboard and by sharing skills that will prepare them for life during and after foster care.
The group also wants to put a skateboard into the hands of those foster children. Since it was founded, it has distributed more than 1,500 skateboards to the foster community.
Shapiro ministered to at-risk youth long before he joined the +swappow PLUS Foundation. When he was a student at GCU and an employee at the local skate shop, he started to connect with youth through skateboarding.
“We took kids skateboarding -- kids who were at risk, kids whose parents were like, ‘Yeah, go do whatever,’” said Shapiro, whose great-grandfather and wife also attended GCU. “These kids would ask us things like, ‘Should we try cocaine?’ And we were the only people that they were asking these questions to. We would say, ‘Honestly, no. It will derail your life,’ and they listened to us. It is kind of the foundation of what we’ve been doing as a lifestyle for 20/30 years, through skateboarding.
“We realized that we have this sort of influence in the lives of kids that many adults don’t have because we speak the language of skateboarding.”
Shapiro continued to see that unique connection to youth when he was an elementary school teacher and ran a skateboarding after-school program.
“Skateboarding resonated with them. It’s relevant. It’s exciting. It’s interesting. It’s a little bit dangerous. It’s edgy,” he said, and it’s life-affirming.
It’s also when he would get to know a lot of foster children and would start giving them skateboards.
He would notice that those foster children would be in class one day and then, suddenly, would be gone. They would be placed in a different foster home and had to move, or some other circumstance would come along.
“I think God has a heart for the orphan – the one that’s in need," he said. "We decided to formalize what we’ve been doing all our life and apply it to the most vulnerable population, which is foster kids.”
Saturday’s tent sale wasn’t the first time the +swappow PLUS Foundation has been on campus.
In 2019, the foundation brought a group of foster children to campus for a skateboarding workshop at the campus’ new skatepark.
“A lot of our kids have never stepped onto a college campus before, so for them to get here and have that opportunity exposed to them … I think they probably feel a strong potential to become a student at some point,” said Joe Dunnigan, Founding Executive Director of the +swappow PLUS Foundation and the Director of Global Brand Strategy and Sports Marketing at GoPro.
Dunnigan remembers saving for more than a year to buy his first skateboard in 1976 and how much skateboarding has changed his life. He’s hoping for the same for those youth his foundation serves.
After that skateboarding event at GCU last year, Shapiro said, “So many of the kids said, ‘I want to go here when I grow up.’ … So many of the kids said, ‘I want to be one of these students riding a longboard, just like them.’
“That’s what we hope to do is empower and inspire kids to realize their potential. I truly believe kids in foster care have this amazing potential, but oftentimes they just don’t have anybody affirm or guide them.’”
GCU has stood alongside the organization in its mission of uplifting the community.
It was through Tim Kelley, Assistant Professor for Entrepreneurship and Economics, that the +swappow PLUS Foundation became connected to the University.
Kelley met Dunnigan through investor friends and Seed Spot, and Shapiro’s son attended Kelley’s preschool, one of the many businesses he and his wife oversee.
“I love their mission to engage at-risk youth to give them purpose and show them opportunity,” said Kelley, who himself has been known to ride an electric skateboard across campus. “As a community, we care, and +swappow demonstrates that.”
It also was through Kelley that the foundation connected with Josh Ostler of White Wave Longboards.
“We called him and told him our mission – to help foster kids thrive through skateboarding and to give each kid a longboard and give them a great experience and then give them life skills to help them,” said Shapiro. “He said, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what we want to do. Come Friday and pick up some longboards.’ I said, ‘I have a Honda CRV.’ He said, ‘You’ll need two moving trucks as big as possible.’”
The company donated $200,000 of skateboards to the program.
Thanks in part to Kelley, not only has Dunnigan seen the organization’s youth exposed to a college campus, but at Saturday’s event they learned a little about business, too:
“They’re learning about merchandising and pricing and customer service and marketing … in the context of something as simple as skateboarding.”
Dunnigan said the next frontier for the nonprofit is expanding from teaching personal development to building out its workforce development programming and using skateboarding as a context to teach socially conscious business.
And the +swappow PLUS Foundation has continued to connect with youth during the pandemic. The organization developed a 12-week online virtual skating academy that teaches skateboarding lessons but also life skills, such as “Don’t compare yourself to others” – everyone learns at different rates – and “Falling isn’t failure,” so when you fall, get back up and keep going.
Foundation board member Dan Bowley, also a GCU graduate (and his daughter is a freshman at GCU), loves being involved with the organization because of “what it does for the foster kids” – keeping them active, healthy and giving them a hobby, a passion and purpose.
A passion, a purpose: It’s what GCU likes to hear.
“All these skaters, they can see somebody from a distance, and depending on how the shoe they’re wearing is worn, they know if they’re a skater or not. They’re instantly connected,” Bowley said.
“It’s like a family.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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