Finding a safe space at Skateistan: Emily's story

Emily is 14 years old and lives in a small house with her family in Phnom Penh. Like many families in her neighborhood, Emily’s family is very poor but her parents believe in a strong education, so they work really hard to ensure their children are enrolled in school. Around their community, Emily’s parents collect trash on the side of the road, and Emily joins them often when she’s not in school to help support their large family. 

In 2016, Emily joined Skateistan with a group of children living with disabilities, who were all participants of an NGO called Aziza’s Place. Emily takes the bus to Aziza’s Place every morning, and then returns home on the bus where she lives with her mom and dad and her siblings, she’s the third child of seven children. Her home is about five kilometers from Skateistan. There’s not a lot of space for activities in her home, and sometimes her parents fight about family finances and yell at each other, which is not fun to be around for Emily. Because of her leg disability and a lack of accessible physical activity spaces in her community, Emily felt too shy to participate in sports and physical activity around her peers from a young age, so she never did it. At school she always felt left out and lacked the self confidence to speak up around her classmates.

When her host mother at Aziza’s Place told Emily about Skateistan, she was so excited that she was going to have the opportunity to learn in a classroom and learn how to skateboard with her peers. But the first day Emily arrived at Skateistan, she felt nervous and awkward because everything was new to her. She didn’t know the other children and educators who were around the Skate School. She saw children skating and became very afraid of stepping on a skateboard for the very first time, so she cried and said that she didn’t want to skateboard until she met one of the educators at Skateistan. 

Her host mother Chenda said, “When I saw Emily and the educator together, he was trying to encourage Emily by spending time talking and explaining to her that skateboarding is fun and not too dangerous. He then motivated her to get on the skateboard by holding her hands and she was allowed to sit on the skateboard instead of stand.” 

After going to Skateistan for a few weeks, Emily became more familiar with the environment and developed strong relationships with the educators, and really felt warmth and comfort from them. She has built faith with the educators and dared to ask questions and other assistance when needed. She started to love and enjoy the provided lessons and other activities because her educators spent a lot of time with her to develop her interest in classroom sessions with Skate and Create. 

A bond developed between Emily and her educator, and day by day, Emily began enjoying skateboarding so much that it can be difficult to get her off of the skateboard when it’s time to leave the Skate School. Emily has now been participating in the Skate and Create program at Skateistan since 2016, and tries not to miss any sessions in the skatepark. Her method of sitting on the skateboard started a trend, and now many of her peers sit down on their skateboards to be closer to the ground while cruising around the skatepark. 

“At first, she was a silent girl; she didn’t like to talk with anyone or say anything in class. However, having been enrolled in the program for a while she was so excited to be at school, make new friends and talk a lot more”
Skateistan Educator
Phnom Penh

Chenda, one of her host moms who has been looking after her since she was very young, shared that Emily used to have a lot of restless energy and said that she was bored, so she would misbehave and had trouble paying attention in classroom sessions at Aziza’s Place. Since developing strong relationships with Skateistan educators who helped Emily break out of her shell, build her confidence and her sense of bravery, she’s learned how to be a role model for younger children. 

“Emily used to be a quiet person and easy to give up when encountering difficulties but now she’s learnt to listen to others before deciding to give up on something after joining the Skateistan program.”- Chenda (host mother)

Emily said, “I am so happy when the teacher provides the lesson about people with disabilities because I can see my value. Though I am with disability, I can still be valued, respected and be proud of doing many things like normal people. Moreover, I am so thankful to the Skate and Create program that has provided me knowledge about hygiene and cleaness, where I know the importance of keeping my body hygiene like washing my hands often and wearing a mask during this pandemic period.”

At Skateistan, including children of all abilities in sport and physical activity is essential to helping children believe that they can do anything. By using skateboards in a different way, such as sitting on them instead of standing on them, the skateboard becomes a tool of accessibility. By working closely with children to develop their interests, we give them the tools they need to become leaders for a better world. In Skateistan programs, children find a safe place to learn, skate, and dream. 

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