At a new Phnom Penh skateboarding school, whose staff intend to include more children in its educational and sport programmes than before, kids are learning new tricks and new confidence, while being encouraged to stay in school. Words by Matt Surrusco. Photography by Enric Català.
A young girl wearing a helmet, elbow pads and kneepads climbs up the side of a 1.8-metre-high quarter pipe. Seconds later she steps on one end of a skateboard before leaning forward and plummeting down the curved ramp to boisterous applause.
She is the first to drop in at Phnom Penh’s newest skate park, opened in late February by Skateistan, an international non-profit organisation that uses skateboarding to engage with and educate underprivileged children in Cambodia, Afghanistan and South Africa.
At the inauguration of the organisation’s new $34,000 facility, which includes the skate park, a classroom, library and office space, primary school children are dropping in and riding up and down a mini ramp taller than themselves.
The skate school – located inside newly-opened The Factory, a Meanchey district industrial complex of former garment factory buildings being repurposed as co-working and office space – replaces Skateistan’s original Phnom Penh facility in the fast-developing Tuol Tom Poung neighbourhood.
With a bigger space, the organisation is aiming to expand its skateboarding and educational programmes and increase the number of kids who participate.
Of the 240 children, aged five to 17, who are involved in Skateistan’s Phnom Penh programmes, the majority come from low-income backgrounds. Most who have recently signed up for classes are the sons and daughters of moto drivers or garment workers, says communications manager Hannah Bailey.
Oliver Percovich, the organisation’s founder and executive director, says poor children tend to be the biggest risk-takers, which allows them to get good at skateboarding quickly. Their peers, as a result, admire their abilities and they become heroes for the first time in their lives, Percovich adds.
But Skateistan, he emphasises, is not concerned with how good kids become at skateboarding – it’s just a hook.
“The fact that skateboarding is seen as a little rebellious is a great way to attract rebellious kids,” Percovich says. “It has a cool factor.” He adds educating underprivileged children remains Skateistan’s focus.
Heab Sok Huoch, programme manager in Cambodia, says the community surrounding the new facility in Chak Angre Leu commune is “more in need of opportunity”. “Kids are hanging around without anything to do,” he adds. “They need us.”
In Phnom Penh, about one-third of Grade 12 students dropped out of school in the 2015 to 2016 school year, according to data from the Ministry of Education.
Poverty and related factors such as migration, prohibitive school costs and families needing children to work in order to contribute to the household, as well as inadequate schools and a lack of qualified teachers, contribute to the nation’s dropout rates, Bunly Meas, a Unicef Cambodia spokesman, says.
“Children from the poorest households are almost eight times more likely to be out of school than those from the wealthiest households,” he adds.
At the new facility, Sok Huoch says Skateistan plans to implement a back-to-school programme to encourage kids to remain in their studies.
A library, which the former skate school did not have, will be stocked with books and computers and used as a place for youth to receive help with homework after school hours.
Just outside the library, a helmeted boy, who appears less confident on his board than some of the other children, is holding hands with Nem Chan Mony Mora, 18, as he rolls down a bank ramp.
Mora, who started skateboarding at Skateistan two years ago and now works as a youth leader, says she guides boys and girls in skateboarding and classroom lessons alongside older teachers and staff.
“I never went to a school that had ramps,” she says, smiling. “[At Skateistan,] people don’t walk. They roll the skateboard.”
More than half of the programme’s active students are girls, Sok Huoch says. Some, like Mora, have had to push back on social and cultural mores.
When she started attending Skateistan classes, the teen says her mother was not enthused by the idea of her daughter skateboarding.
“You’re a girl. Do things like other girls. Wear a skirt,” Mora recalls her mother telling her.
Her father, on the other hand, encouraged her, she says. “I have only one daughter, so I want you to be amazing,” she says her dad told her. “You have freedom.”
After graduating high school next year, Mora plans to study art in university, a passion, evidenced by the blue paint on her hands, which was nurtured in the weekly after-school art and life skills classes at Skateistan. Today, she helps teach the classes, on topics ranging from graffiti art to heart health and children’s rights.
The programme and her teachers have instilled greater confidence in her, Mora says. They also taught her and every other student how to stand on a skateboard and fall properly on their pads to avoid injury, Sok Huoch adds.
While Mora fell down a lot when she started learning to skateboard, now she can land simple tricks like a fakie-pop-shove-it, she says. She adds that skateboarding, has made her braver.
Skateistan’s skate park is open to the public Tuesday and Thursday, from 5.30pm to 7.30pm, and Saturday, from noon to 4pm.