An international project that empowers youths by combining skateboarding and education has found a new home in Phnom Penh
Skateistan, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) which has been operating in Cambodia since 2011, officially opened the doors to its new facility on Friday. Along with a skatepark that boasts a mini-ramp and numerous ramps and rails, there is also a classroom, a library, a viewing deck and an office.
“I love [the building], I think it came together really nicely. It’s nice and bright and that attracts the kids. We want them to feel safe and happy and I think it achieves exactly that,” Skateistan founder Oliver Percovich said.
The new building is located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh at the Factory, an expansive complex that includes cafes, co-working spaces, offices and art projects. Skateistan’s programmes manager Sok Huoch Heab said the reason for the move was that they wanted to be closer to the communities that were most in need of support, in particular girls and children living with disabilities.
The idea for Skateistan came about in 2008, shortly after Percovich moved to Kabul, Afghanistan. The Australian noticed that many children in Afghanistan were taking an interest in his skateboards, and decided to start offering small skate sessions on the street.
This quickly grew into Skateistan, which, including the centre in Phnom Penh, now has two bases in Afghanistan, one in South Africa and one in the Cambodian coastal city of Sihanoukville.
The organisation uses skateboarding as a means of engaging with local youth, and through its ‘skate and create’ programme, offers them a chance to learn new skills, such as art, photography and recycling. In Cambodia, Skateistan works closely with partners such as Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) and Friends International in order to reach out to disadvantaged children.
“If you walk around these communities, you can see kids hanging around because their parents are factory workers or construction workers. Some of them are not even in school, so they are really in need of us here because it gives them access to more opportunities,” Sok Huoch said.
Around 240 children attend the centre in Phnom Penh every week, with more than 50% of them girls. Right from the beginning, Percovich put strong emphasis on providing opportunities for girls.
“I started these small skate sessions on the streets of Kabul, really focusing on girls and creating opportunities for them, and very quickly, because I gave more time on the skateboards to the girls, they became better than the boys.”
Sok Huoch is hoping that the new centre in Phnom Penh will help increase participation numbers, especially among girls. He is also aiming to introduce the ‘back-to-school’ programme that Skateistan offers in its other centres in Afghanistan. This involves helping students with homework and giving them access to the internet for self-study.
Since its inception, Skateistan has won numerous awards and was ranked number 65 in a list of the top NGOs in the world by NGO Advisor in 2016.
Percovich believes that skateboarding can offer valuable life lessons, and lead to greater opportunities.
“It is something that people can apply to their lives. You fall down, you fail, but you get back up again and you try and try again. Skateboarders have that advantage over everybody else in the world.”
The skatepark is the first of its kind in Cambodia and, when not in use by Skateistan students, will be open to the public.