When Dustin Valdez was a boy, he struggled to stay on the straight and narrow. His parents had immigrated to the US from El Salvador, and his neighborhood was plagued by drugs and violence. Dustin was just another LA kid, looking for his “thing.” But where many of his friends found gangs, Dustin discovered skateboarding. And that has made all the difference.
That’s not to say that skating saved Dustin. At least not right away. The rebelliousness he was attracted to in skate culture (and street art and punk music) got him into plenty of trouble.
“By the time I was in tenth grade I was just ditching class, hanging out with bad kids, doing drugs,” he says. “…and just I got to a point where I was kinda questioning school.”
That same year, Dustin dropped out. He started working the graveyard shift at a pharmacy, bringing in $300 dollars per week. He felt rich, joking that he was sure he could “retire at 20.” Then, one night, the pharmacy was robbed at gunpoint. Dustin had given up his shift to a friend, a former gang member, who was able to disarm the gunman — but Dustin worried about what might have happened if he’d been in the same scenario.
“I just started thinking, ‘why am I in a situation where this is a possibility?'” he says. “So I started to figure out a new path. You gotta get your GED to go to community college. And then from community college, if your grades are good, you get to transfer to a four-year university. And that’s what started my trajectory.”
After college, Dustin made a life in New York City, working in marketing. He was making money and entertaining clients at high-end restaurants — an American success story. But he didn’t feel connected. He didn’t feel like he had a purpose.
That’s when Dustin opened up a newspaper to look for volunteering opportunities and discovered Stoked — a charity co-founded by action sports demigod Sal Masekela. The more he learned about the mentoring program, the more Dustin realized that the mission of Stoked dovetailed perfectly with his own experience. He’d been “that” kid, eager to rebel, and could immediately see how Stoked’s model of connecting with kids through board sports (snowboarding, surfing, and skating) might have helped him find his way a little sooner (and with a little less trouble).
Dustin started working with kids out of Stoked’s NYC office, and later moved on to coaching at the LA branch. He not only sees it as a path towards empowerment, but also as a chance for kids to have fun while building a support system.
“When one of the kids learns to ride a skateboard for the first time, the smile on his face is immeasurable,” he says. “You never see a kid that happy from doing something. I’ve only seen it skateboarding, surfing, and probably riding a bike. But it’s just like this very specific smile that’s uncontainable from ear to ear when they finally get it.”
The sport also acts as a metaphor and opens up teachable moments for Dustin and other Stoked coaches to connect with kids on a deeper level.
Skateboarding teaches you perseverance,” he explains. “It teaches you determination. It teaches you relentlessness. Because there’s gonna be tons of times that you fall down. And the ability to pick yourself up is a quality of a strong character. You have to help yourself up. Skating is about becoming very intimate with failure. And learning that it’s gonna lead to accomplishment and success.”
Sal Masekela agrees. His goal with the program is give new chances to kids who might never get them otherwise. “Success in any way, shape, or form in life has a lot to do with opportunity,” he says.
The opportunity for young people to learn to skate, with help from coaches like Dustin Valdez, is quite literally changing their lives.