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Flying High

Skateboarding Becomes Vital Tool to Help Arizona Foster Kids Reach Heights Thanks to the +swappow PLUS Foundation

It requires concentration, balance, focus, patience, and willingness to get back up after falling.

And while skateboarding may initially seem like just another youth activity, in the hands of +swappow PLUS Foundation’s Executive Director Michael Shapiro, it’s become a lifeline for kids who are often overlooked.

Since 2015, Shapiro and +swappow founder Joe Dunnigan have used the sport to make a difference in the lives of Arizona foster youth by harnessing skateboarding skills to teach key life skills. 

Shapiro has seen the impact in the form of participants’ improved self-perception, better participation in school, and a decrease in substance use. Over the last seven years, more than 1,000 Arizona Foster Children have been the beneficiaries of the foundation’s work, and more than 1,500 skateboards have been donated to the foster community through the generous support of local companies like White Wave Longboards.

The foundation serves foster youth ages 7-20 with a variety of workshops that teach professional and personal development skills, all with skateboarding as the vehicle.

Shapiro and his wife Robin created the personal development curriculum. Joe Ryan created the professional development program, whereby participants manufacture skateboards and learn business fundamentals. The foundation thrives because of strong support from the community. 

“We truly believe these kids are extraordinary, not in spite of, but because of their challenges,” Shapiro says. “Our programming gives them the opportunity to grow in confidence and recognize their potential, equipping them to be the future leaders of our community.”

An avid skateboarder himself, Shapiro has witnessed how skateboarding can bridge a social gap. He saw this after opening a skatepark at the Prescott YMCA, and while hosting an after-school skateboard program in the Washington Elementary School District, where he taught for 12 years. 

“While skateboarding, we spoke the same language. It was a way to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, rather than from a place of authority,” Shapiro says.

Just the act of skateboarding is therapeutic. After the sessions, participants are often more present and engaged than they were when they arrived.

“While skateboarding, our participants are able to just be kids and enjoy the moment. They’ve been through a lot of trauma and often carry a heavy burden, but while they are with us, they are free,” Shapiro says.

Shapiro recalls a participant who attended just one workshop. He was sent to juvenile detention and listed Shapiro as a caring adult, and asked if he would be willing to visit him. Shapiro met with him once a week for a whole year. They talked about his trajectory. The youth asked Shapiro how to realign his path. 

He got out, was adopted at age 17, and has been sober for nearly two years. He is still actively involved in the program and is now helping newcomers learn how to skate.

“We discussed a lot of lessons from skateboarding during our time together, which ultimately we formalized into our personal development course,” Shapiro says. 

The opportunity to turn hardship into something beautiful is what drives Shapiro and everyone associated with the foundation, including more than 200 local volunteers.

“To have the privilege to participate in someone's childhood is the greatest honor a person can have,” Shapiro says. “To witness participants go from children to young adults, grow into their confidence, to find their voice, and realize their boundless potential is what makes this work meaningful and important.”

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  • Photo by Olivia Jensen
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  • Photo by Noleen Thurman
  • Photo by Noleen Thurman