Skate MD: Healing Hearts through Skateboarding

By Leia Ostermann

Leia Ostermann, Editor
Leia Ostermann

“Spread kindness.”

This was the overarching mission Andrea Bibelheimer, and Melanie Tillotson set out to achieve when they started Skate MD (Website, Facebook) in November 2014.

“How crazy is it that one year ago this was just an idea,” said Melanie when I spoke with her and Andrea one Sunday.

The two women are full-time professionals working in Sacramento that met at a skate park more than four years ago. Talking to Melanie and Andrea you can’t help but pick up their passion, kindness and respect for each other– with one picking up the conversation where the other left off, or sharing anecdotes about the impact SkateMD has had on children, parents, volunteers and their own lives.

While working in corporate community relations and human resources respectively at different companies, they started talking about adding an extra something to their lives to fill the gap between living, working and giving back. Both women would say that Skate MD “started overnight” when a simmering conversation about using skateboarding to help others and a heartfelt response to a hate crime against a teenage boy with Autism turned into action.

“Let’s just do it.”

Today, more than 107 youth between the ages of 5 and 17 have participated in Skate MD with the help of 200+ volunteers.

Skate MD is a nonprofit organization based in Northern California with a mission to heal hearts by spreading kindness and skateboarding to special populations of children facing developmental, physical, emotional or family challenges. Skate MD hosts a skateboarding clinic every month for 25 children, matching each child specifically with a skateboard volunteer for one-on-one skate time.

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“Skateboarding is based on individual progress which makes it perfect for this population,” said Andrea. “Each day you are better than you were yesterday. We get excited about little victories. You don’t have to hit a home run, you just have to have fun and try.”

In its first year, Skate MD served children with Autism, Down Syndrome, and other developmental challenges along with children with physical challenges like Cerebral Palsy, paralysis, and more.

“I’ve fallen in love with every one of these children,” said Melanie with a laugh. “For the last two clinics, we had a fearless little girl join us who is a quadruple amputee. You should have seen her rolling down the ramps with a giant smile! We were all so proud of her and excited that she is now a skateboarder!

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Both women have lived and worked in and around the Sacramento region most of their lives. While neither had formal experience working with children with special needs, their hearts were always ready to spread kindness and touch the lives of families and children with emotional, physical or developmental issues.

“I’ve fallen in love with every one of these children,” said Melanie with a laugh. “We are always crying!”

Skate MD is careful and thoughtful about how they pair children with their skateboarding buddies for every session. One of SkateMD’s board members, Erik Nielsen, makes phone calls to every parent before each class to make sure they fully understand the children’s needs and match them specifically to appropriate volunteers ahead of time.

“We also had one teenage girl with Cerebral Palsy attend several clinics,” said Andrea. “Her original goal for attending SkateMD was to be able to ride a longboard to school like the other teenagers she sees. After a couple of clinics, she was so excited to share that she now rides her longboard to school and is viewed as “cool” by some girls on the street.”

The best part about the program is the side benefits and positive impacts Melanie and Andrea have witnessed over the past year – apart from the hundred children they have worked with. Volunteers with no experience are given an amazing opportunity to teach children to skateboard, show them kindness, get down eye-to-eye to help and assist them with the sport and continue to build up relationships over time. It’s become the SkateMD Family.

“Our original mission was to spread kindness, compassion and tolerance but we did not expect to see the amazing community that has developed and the hundreds of parents who now think about skateboarding differently.”

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In the short but impactful time I spent talking to Melanie and Andrea, I was absolutely blown away by the inspiration, motivation and humility the two women showed. They spoke with passion and excitement, without trying to make the program sound cooler or more important than it was, but to show that whatever that thing is that you want to do, it can be done.

We have heard from so many parents that SkateMD has changed their lives. It’s not just skateboarding. Some of our families tell us that they run into a lot of difficulty getting their children involved in sports and groups. They tell us they were “kicked out” of groups. Other families tell us their children have been bullied and some children were depressed. SkateMD has created an environment where the children are completely welcomed. Both of us and our families skateboard – it’s a part of our everyday,” said Melanie. “It was the easiest way to spread kindness in daily life.”

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Art of Beer: Sacramento and Ales for Autism selected SkateMD as the 2015 beneficiary for the 2016 Art of Beer Invitational. Both Melanie and Andrea will be at the Fifth Annual Art of Beer Invitational on January 29 at McClellan Conference Center for a night of great beer, food and conversation.
More information can be found at http://artofbeerinvitational.com/#about

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