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).