By Suzanna Lourie | Special to The Tico Times
VILLAREAL, Guanacaste – The blistering afternoon sun proved no match for the excitement that captured more than 600 students and community members last Tuesday as they celebrated the inauguration of the new Liceo de Villareal High School Skatepark.
“It really seems like we started a craze,” said one crowd member as he watched the students swarm the edge of the park, taking runs, trying tricks and laughing with friends.
A craze would be an understatement. Since Liceo de Villareal announced the completion of the new skate park – the first one in a public high school in all of Central America – requests for more have been pouring in from across the country.
“The Minister of Education wants to build more parks, and we’re actually meeting tomorrow to discuss ways of getting the funds to build five or six more skate parks all across the country,” said Andrés Valenciano, executive director of the Youth Action Fund (FAJ), one of the nonprofit groups that spearheaded the Villareal project.
“The park works as an excuse to get kids more interested in what education is supposed to be. Suddenly school becomes a place where you can not only gain new knowledge and skills, but also make new friends and develop your potential as a human being,” he added.
The model of the skate park as an alternative to get kids off the streets and build healthy social relationships in a safe recreational space is catching the attention of the press and other schools around the country for one very important reason – it works.
“It all started three years ago when the [school] director called us in to help with a group of 13 teenagers who were having some trouble in school,” said Laetitia Deweer, president of CEPIA, a Guanacaste-based nonprofit organization that worked with FAJ on the skate park project.
Both organizations were called in to initiate discussions with the group of students, who were teetering on the edge of expulsion, in hopes of finding a way to turn their behavior around.
“They explained to us they were all facing difficulties in their personal lives that led to them getting into all sorts of problems, fights, drugs, the works, and they told us there weren’t a lot of different alternatives to have fun together or just socialize,” FAJ founder and President Jorge Aguilar Berrocal said.
As it turned out, the students shared common interests in sports, including surfing and skateboarding. When asked what would motivate them to come to school, the group unanimously suggested the idea of a skate park – something that would boost the high school’s “cool” factor.
From there, the 13 students took on a new identity, and the “Team Riders” of the Liceo de Villareal Skatepark were born.
“We immediately figured out they were talented, clever, funny and creative kids,” Berrocal said. “So it was absolutely feasible for them to get good grades and do better, we just needed to figure out how to channel their potential.”
With the help of CEPIA and FAJ, the Team Riders made a deal with the principal: They would get a clean slate in exchange for improving their grades, helping with volunteer work and attending class.
Inextricably linked to education, the skate park evolved along with the students’ grades. Eventually, CEPIA and FAJ began to search for funding to make the vision a reality, and they found an overwhelming response from the community.
The project was made possible with more than $30,000 in materials and services donated by National Community Development, Australian AID, CEMEX, The Pool Store, Fertama, Friends of Education Foundation, Florida Skateboards National, Recordings Destiny and many other individual sponsors.
With the help of enthusiastic donors and continued participation in school from the Team Riders, the park began to take form and simultaneously accomplish its educational goals of helping students boost grades and get involved in various volunteer projects.
One of the original members of the Team Riders, 20-year-old Keiner López, 20, has since graduated from high school thanks to the skate park program. Today, nearly half the group holds diplomas.
“I’m finished with school, so I am just excited to skate all the time,” López said. “But the idea for the other students is to motivate kids in school to make classes more fun; so they don’t just feel like they are going to learn, but also that school can be a fun place to be.”
The hundreds of kids aged 4-24 who came out to skate the new park on Tuesday seemed to support López’s sentiments and show just how popular the school will be with its new park.
“I think [the skate park] is a good metaphor of how kids, teachers, faculty, civil society and the private sector can all come together behind an idea of giving kids a voice,” Valenciano said.
“The kids are willing to do their half if people are willing to listen and take note of their ideas,” he added. “This high school is an example of how education can be transformed into a place for kids to fulfill their potential as human beings.”