By Janet Eastman
ASHLAND — Preteen boys on skateboards are flying off ramps, gliding on rails and crashing onto the wood floor of Ashland Middle School’s old gym during lunchtime on a recent Monday.
As they do, the adults supervising them are hoping to see even more kids doing flips, fakies and flops.
“They fall down and bounce right up,” says Leslie Levy, an education assistant who knows each child by name, skating skills and personality. “They benefit from having this outlet, a break from their school day, where they get to be active and show off their skills.”
But it’s more than just practicing ollies and nollies.
Principal Steve Retzlaff sees this lunchtime Skate Gym program as part of the school’s philosophy “to provide a place that kids want to be.”
He says that skateboarding engages the students interested in the sport, but also shows the whole school that “we value everyone and we have a safe place for everyone.”
Levy and others wish the former basketball court was crawling with more boys and girls on skateboards, scooters and inline skates. What’s holding some students back from jumping into the free activity is equipment.
“We would have way more kids participating if we had skateboards to lend them,” says Levy.
When the Skate Gym program was launched at AMS in 2004 — the first of its kind — parents donated used skateboards and helmets, and built ramps so every child, regardless of an ability to buy equipment, could join the group.
A few years ago, a father gave $500 to the program in memory of his late son to purchase new ramps, scooters and skateboards.
Over time, however, and because of the sport’s pounding treatment of wooden boards and wheels, the equipment has worn out or been broken.
Today, most of the 20 or more children skating in the gym bring their own boards. For kids who don’t own a skateboard, there are only three fit to borrow.
“Look at these,” says Levy, digging into a large box in a locked storage room. “These boards are chipped and really dangerous. They develop cracks and then just break.”
She points to a wall where a half-dozen unusable scooters are hanging and she doles out bike helmets that were donated by the Ashland Police Department.
“Bike helmets still work to protect heads,” she says, “but it would be nice to have skateboard helmets.”
Dodging rambunctious kids on wheels, she stops at a wooden quarterpipe ramp that a parent made years ago. She shows where the metal edging has been nailed down again and again, but it, too, is almost beyond repair.
“We try to do the best we can, but the program is running out of steam,” she says. “I’m not willing to let the Skate Gym be open just to kids who have their own board. It has to be open for everybody.”
Skateboarding is not allowed anywhere else on campus and students can’t leave campus during lunch to go to the Ashland community skate park.
“I know some families in our community have equipment just lying around,” says Levy.
The group is asking for donations of new or used skateboards, scooters, helmets, ramps and anything skating-related. Even parts will do. Decks can be paired with wheels, says Levy.
She gestures to Matt Montamble, another education assistant who supervises the sixth-grade skaters. “He’s a magician with a toolbox. He can fix anything.”
While kids whirl around rails and boxes, Montamble says, “We are down to almost nothing now.”
Axa Lininger, 12, says he goes to the Skate Gym to “air out” — ride with all four wheels in the air — and “do my flat rail.”
He steps hard on his own board and it jumps into his hand. “Some of the kids have to use the school’s boards and they don’t really work,” he says. “If we got new boards, it would help kids improve their skills.”
To skate in the gym, students must have parental permission, wear a helmet at all times, and help set up and put away the equipment.
Masie Moyers says she appreciates the program because her seventh-grade son, Keenan, gets to practice under supervision.
Levy says she likes that the kids can skate every day, even in the rain. “It’s a year-round activity that draws a crowd,” she says. “A couple of times a year, we open the outside doors, play music and more students can watch what these kids can do. They get validation.”
She stops to look at the clock then she blows a whistle and calls out, “Clean up please.” Afterward, the skaters stomp on their boards and walk to class.
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.