//Fresno Skateboard Salvage: The Art of Giving Back

Fresno Skateboard Salvage: The Art of Giving Back

By Dave Fountinelle | dave@fresnoflyer.com

“Skating saved my life,” Rodney Rodriguez states matter-of-factly. “Growing up in Calwa, I saw the other kids in my neighborhood getting caught up in drugs, gangs, and criminal behavior, and I just fully immersed myself in the whole skate culture. It put me on the path to being a grateful, hard-working skater. I really want to show other kids from similar backgrounds that skating can be a way to avoid those temptations and be a part of a really great and positive community.”

The inspiration to make a difference can come from anywhere. For Rodriguez, it came from skateboarding. Rodriguez, a life-long skater, has been a regular at his Fresno neighborhood skatepark for years. As one of the “old-timers” at the park, he appreciated seeing the younger generations embracing skating with the same enthusiasm he had, pushing tricks on top-of-the-line boards. He also noticed some of the young skaters were struggling with damaged or low-quality boards yet still came back every day and tried their best with what they had. 

“Honestly, it didn’t feel fair to me,” Rodriguez explains. “Here I am, an old dude with a $200 board and $400 worth of safety gear, and here’s a kid struggling with a cheap board and bad equipment. To me, it’s just not what skating is supposed to be about.”

So, Rodriguez reached out to a bunch of his fellow Gen-X skate crew and took up a collection of any old decks, wheels, and other parts they weren’t using. Word got out, and soon he had a pile of, well… mostly useless decks and worn-out parts that wouldn’t build a skateboard any better than what those kids were already riding.

“I felt bad,” Rodriguez lamented. “Everyone was excited to donate parts, but it was all stuff that had already been well-used. I didn’t really know what to do with it.”

That all changed when Rodriguez visited a downtown Fresno art auction that featured original artwork painted on and made from old skateboard decks and parts. Inspired by the creations he had seen, Rodriguez put out a call on social media for local artists to help transform his pile of skate trash into skate treasure. 

“I thought, if I could get 4-5 artists involved, that would be enough to get something going,” Rodriguez explained.

Close to 50 local artists ended up answering his call. Overwhelmed, Rodriguez reached out to his good friend and Gazebo Gardens owner, Scott Miller. After hearing his dilemma, Miller offered him a space at his venue to host what would become the first Fresno Skateboard Salvage art auction. The auction was a hit, bringing in over $1,800 for the fledgling project. Rodriguez used the proceeds from the auction to buy brand-new, high-end skateboards, helmets, and pads. He returned to the skatepark with a trunk full of new boards, helmets, and pads. Fresno Skateboard Salvage gave away its first batch of boards and gear to kids in need.

“I didn’t want to burn out the artist community who were volunteering their time and talent,” Rodriguez said. “So my original plan was just to do this once a year.”

One hundred percent of the money raised by the art auctions goes directly towards purchasing skateboards and helmets for kids in need. Fresno Skateboard Salvage is a not-for-profit organization that Rodriguez and a couple of his good friends run as a labor of love in their spare time. 

Rodriguez’s day job as a truck driver took him all over the valley. One day, after finishing a delivery in Avenal, Rodriguez was driving past the prison on his way out of town and found himself thinking about the many talented artists incarcerated there. So, he reached out to Dee Lovett, the Community Resources Manager at Avenal State Prison, and pitched the idea of having some of the inmates volunteer their artistic talents to create original skateboard art for auction. She thought it was a great idea, and a week later, Rodriguez brought 50 decks and all the paint and supplies for the inmates to use. 

“I met with the guys and explained what the program was about, and they absolutely loved it,” Rodriguez remarked, “and from there, things just blew up.”

The story of the Avenal Prison inmates and their original skateboard artwork quickly went viral on social media. Before long, The Fresno Bee, ABC 30, and CBS 47 all picked up the story and interviewed Rodriguez about the project. Shortly after that, Chowchilla Men’s Colony and Corcoran State Prison reached out to Rodriguez to bring his program there. 

“The response was honestly really overwhelming,” Rodriguez confessed. “There are a lot of other prisons that have contacted me since then, but I just don’t have the resources to work with all of them.”

After that initial media exposure, interest in Fresno Skateboard Salvage took off. Public donations and inquiries from other artists began pouring in. Over the next three years, artists from across the Central Valley donated skateboard art for Rodriguez’s auctions. 

Then the COVID pandemic abruptly halted Fresno Skateboard Salvage’s in-person art auctions. So, for the next two years, Rodriguez could only hold the inmate auctions online. 

“It was definitely a blow to the program,” Rodriguez noted. “I’m thankful we were already doing the inmate art auctions online, so we were able to keep doing those. That kept us afloat while we scrambled to adjust to the shutdown.”

After two long years, Fresno Skateboard Salvage is finally hosting live in-person auctions again. And the auctions feature artists from all over the state, the country, and even as far away as Germany. The next event will be held on June 18th at Gazebo Gardens. The silent auction will be held from 6 pm to 8 pm. Fresno Skateboard Salvage will also have a merch table, along with the regular food and entertainment Gazebo Gardens is known for.

“When we first started, we put on one auction a year,” Rodriguez explained. “This year, between the three prisons and all the local artist submissions, we’re doing quarterly auctions for the first time.”

The auctions may become even more frequent in the near future. Fresno Skateboard Salvage recently brought their inmate artist program to J.C. Montgomery School, Hanford’s juvenile detention high school. Between 10 and 15 incarcerated teens have already begun working on their own original skateboard art submissions.

Rodriguez has been skating for over 30 years. As a young man, he turned to skating as a way to escape an unstable and often abusive home life. He credits skating not only with giving him an escape from problems at home but on the streets as well. It is what inspired him to provide a similar outlet to kids who also face such challenging environments.

One of the underserved areas in particular that Rodriguez is focused on is Parkway Drive in Fresno. The motel-laden strip between Olive and Belmont Ave is plagued with drugs, prostitution, and violence. It’s also home to hundreds of impoverished families – including dozens of children. 

“I can’t imagine a worse environment for kids to grow up than over there,” Rodney shares. “Where can those kids go to play, to just be kids? All they have are parking lots full of dirty needles and broken glass, with drug dealers and prostitutes on every corner. What chance do these kids have when that’s all they see all day, every day?”

Fresno Skateboard Salvage recently partnered with Richard Burell and Live Again Fresno to host a pop-up skatepark for the kids living on Parkway Drive. Working together, they provided lunch, free skateboards and helmets, and even new shoes for many of the kids. They also offered counseling and a safe space for the kids to hang out. Unfortunately, licensing and insurance issues have created an obstacle to expanding the pop-up into a regular, sanctioned event. 

Rodriguez isn’t discouraged, however. “I would really love to work with the City of Fresno and host events like this, not just for the Parkway Drive area, but all the underserved areas of Fresno. We’ve had a tremendous response from other cities, such as Firebaugh, San Joaquin, Mendota, and Hanford. I’m sure we could do great things here in Fresno too.”

When Fresno Skateboard Salvage hosted a giveaway event in Firebaugh, the entire police department showed up to grill hotdogs and provide live music entertainment. Rodriguez says this is precisely the kind of community interaction he believes can make a real difference for kids and teens in Fresno’s underserved communities. 

As Rodriguez explains, “More than just showing kids that there are other alternatives to gangs, drugs, and the cycle of crime and poverty, events like this are also about building a positive relationship between the youth and the local police. We’ve been incredibly successful doing this in Firebaugh and Parlier. I would love to do the same thing in Fresno, too.”

In the six years since Fresno Skateboard Salvage began with a pile of worn-out decks and parts in Rodriguez’s garage, they have given 1968 brand new, high-quality boards to Valley kids. And all in their spare time.

“Every penny we raise goes towards buying boards and equipment,” Rodriguez says. “We don’t keep any of the money we raise for ourselves, so we can’t afford to quit our day jobs. So this takes up all of our free time. But, the reward is completely worth it.”

As interest in Fresno Skateboard Salvage continues to grow and the list of communities they serve gets longer, their need for donations has also become greater. When asked what their greatest need is, Rodriguez’s answer is simple.

“Honestly, the best thing people can donate is money,” He continues. “We buy wholesale, and we can build boards for a lot less than someone could purchase from a skate shop. So, we tell anyone who wants to donate a board, just give us the money because we can probably build two or three boards for the same price.”

There are more projects on the horizon for Fresno Skateboard Salvage. Among them is another skateboard art collaboration with 25 Native American youth in Oakhurst. In addition, they continue to stay busy hosting skateboard giveaways at schools and skateparks all over Fresno and Kings County. Most recently was a giveaway at West Fresno Middle School on May 20th. Rodriguez also plans to continue Fresno Skateboard Salvage’s partnership with Live Again Fresno, providing boards, safe spaces, and assistance for Fresno’s underserved youth. They are also partnered with MAGIC Fresno to provide boards and equipment for some of the exceptional needs youth they work with.

Looking to the future, Rodriguez would like to work with more high-end skateboard distributors to obtain an even wider variety of boards. 

“I’d really like to work with more of the pro-backed brands and get some of those really cool boards that the kids would just go crazy over,” Rodriguez relates.

And Rodriguez continues to spend his weekends down at the skatepark, giving back to the skating community that gave so much to him. 

“Skating is a culture,” Rodriguez says, “It’s not just about skating; it’s about the community and the commonality that comes with being part of a culture. There are so many ways kids can be a part of skate culture besides just skating. That’s what makes skateboard art so special and important to what we’re doing. We want to show kids that there’s a place for everyone here. Whether you’re into skating, art, music, fashion, photography, whatever your interest is, there’s a place for it in skate culture.”

“I’m just a poor kid from Calwa who couldn’t afford a decent board growing up. Now, I’m 50 years old and still skating every day. All I want to do is show these kids that there’s a place for everyone in skate culture. Here’s a board; let’s go skate.”

If you would like to host a Fresno Skateboard Salvage giveaway event at your school, venue, or local skatepark, or if you would like to donate time or resources, email Rodney at fresnoskateboardsalvage@gmail.com. You can also show support by buying merch through their website www.fresnoskateboardsalvage.org. 

Follow them on IG @fresnoskateboardsalvage. For information about the online inmate art auctions, join the FSS Auctions group on Facebook.