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Boards for Bros puts free wheels under kids' feet

TAMPA — Dressed in Santa hats and beards, a dozen or so skateboarders drove around downtown in a van loaded with skateboards.

But they weren't looking for a good place to do some holiday shredding. The skaters sought out neighborhood kids and gave out 100 free boards to children they knew couldn't afford their own.

So began a Christmastime tradition in 2006 that eventually grew into the 2014 formation of Boards for Bros, a nonprofit dedicated to helping kids get the supplies and lessons they need to learn to skate. In the past nine years, more than 1,000 free boards have been handed out; this year alone, the group is determined to give away at least 500.

"Skateboards are a powerful tool for personal development," said Michelle Box, 44, the executive director of Boards for Bros. "You don't need a coach; you don't need a team; you don't need uniforms; you don't need a baseball diamond or even a basketball net. All you need is the pavement and yourself."

Eventually they hope to expand operations throughout Florida and the rest of the country. They even have eyes on global domination. But for now, Boards for Bros is an operation with headquarters at Skatepark of Tampa. It's the park's official charity.

"It's an awesome extension of what the park is," said Brian Schaefer, owner of Skatepark of Tampa and one of the original Santas who gave out boards. "We've been to South Africa and dropped off boards there. We've been to Cuba. We're activating wherever we can."

The largely teen volunteer corps assembles the boards under tents next to the Skatepark's outside Courtyard Concrete Course. The skateboards, valued at about $100, are made with high quality replaceable components that are easier to repair.

Serina Bush, 16, a skater since 2010, noticed a call for volunteers at the Skatepark and spent her summer giving local foster children skateboarding lessons, building boards and working a recent Boards for Bros fundraising event.

The Middleton High School junior says skateboarding changed her friends' lives. One group she knows got so enamored with the industry that it started a clothing line geared for skaters. Another friend doesn't have a car and uses his board to get to work. She's happy to educate anyone who asks about the transformative power of skateboards.

"If I didn't skateboard I wouldn't know what dedication means," said Bush, who spends several hours a day practicing when she can. "If you fall, you have to pick yourself back up and keep going."

Skatepark of Tampa, which opened in 1993, is one of the biggest skateboarding meccas outside California. Organizers say skaters get to rub elbow pads with some of the best skateboarders in the world.

It's how Michelle Box, who helps lead the Boards for Bros program, ended up here.

Her son, Wesley Box, 14, is an award-winning competitive skateboarder. They were always coming to Skatepark for contests. In October 2013 they moved from Alabama to Tampa.

A self-proclaimed "skate mom," Box fell in love with the skateboard culture and how it transformed her son. Wesley never really fit in with the football players in his old hometown, but he thrived at Skatepark. He now teaches lessons and holds a sponsorship with a shoe company.

"It was an amazing transformation," Box said. "I want every kid to have that opportunity, no matter his or her financial situation."

A Kid's Place of Tampa Bay was a recent participant of the Boards for Bros program. Twenty of the foster children who live at the Brandon campus went to Skatepark for lessons this summer. They were each given a board.

These kids have seen their friends at school ride, said Mary Berg, resource specialist at A Kid's Place. They've played video games named after famous skateboarders and watched movies that glorify the sport.

"The biggest thing for our kids is to have a sense of normalcy. They want to be just like everyone else," Berg said. "At the Skatepark no one knows they're in foster care. It's huge for their self esteem, and they turned out to be pretty good at it too."

Contact Helen Anne Travis at Follow her @helen_anne.