A welcome sign in Walthill, on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
> ‘Absolutely thrilled’: Youth from Omaha Tribe welcome new skatepark
Youth from Omaha Tribe welcome new skatepark
Friday, December 9, 2022
WALTHILL, Nebraska — On a sunny afternoon in October, young people gathered for the grand opening of a new skate park in this Omaha Reservation community.
As they watched a blue ribbon being cut that day, they must have imagined themselves performing grinds and slides, backsides and powerslides to the applause of their peers. And they must have nervously awaited to see who would win the three skateboards that had been donated for a drawing.
The first name pulled from a hat that day was that of the community’s best skateboarder, who already owned a skateboard.
What happened next drew gasps.
The young man quietly took the board, walked into the audience and handed it to a younger man whom he had been coaching.
“I can tell you there wasn’t a dry eye among the adults there,” said Joe Starita, a non-Native author and retired journalist who attended the event.
The skate park in Walthill, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
It was an especially big day for Starita, who had helped raise money to build the skate park
He said the idea for the skate park began in March 2020, when he traveled to Walthill to talk to high school seniors about a college scholarship that he provides each year to five Native students.
After he finished his presentation, a guidance counselor at the school pulled him aside and told him about a recent rash of suicides and suicide attempts on the Omaha Reservation. In one night, 15 young people had attempted suicide, and six of them had taken their own lives, she told him.
“I was so haunted by that thought,” Starita said.
He said he considered how another community in Nebraska might react to the loss of six young people in one night. He said if such an event had occurred in a non-Native community, vast state and local resources likely would be devoted to stopping it.
“But it happened on the Omaha Reservation, and nobody even noticed,” he said.
He said he began considering ways to help the reservation’s youth, and then he remembered learning about a skate park that had been constructed on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota that had become a source of great community pride.
And he began researching the impact of skate parks on the mental health of those who use them, finding that skate parks bring incredible benefits.
The skate park in Walthill, Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
Dr. Belinda Hinojos – a staff psychologist and training director for Morningstar Counseling, a Native-owned mental health clinic with offices across Nebraska, including in Walthill – said skateboarding offers many physical and mental health benefits.
“We have known that physical activity releases chemicals in the brain that help you feel better, sleep better, and make you feel good overall,” she said. “There’s also the component of getting outside, getting some sun, and fresh air.”
She said skateboarding also “builds resilience, patience, self-esteem, and a sense of community.”
“Kids who learn to skateboard literally fall down and keep getting back up, which is a great lesson we can apply to some of the challenges we face throughout our lives,” Hinojos said.
She said skateboarders learn to lean on their peers to get back up and improve their abilities. As they learn new techniques and become more accomplished, skateboarders build confidence and self-esteem.
“Lastly, I really support the strong sense of community that skateboarding offers,” she said. “Kids that might not know each other, or only know of one another, are coming together and forming friendships, and mentorships.”
Mike Grant, a member of the Walthill Village Board, said the village developed a community wellness plan more than a decade ago that included a survey of the town’s youth, many of whom expressed a desire for a skate park to be built.
Starita said he conducted his own informal survey of youth one day after deciding to drive to Walthill to talk to youth. That day, he met Grant, who described himself as the “Tony Hawk of Walthill” and told Starita emphatically that the town would love a skate park.
So Starita went to work finding funding.
He began by looking into the potential cost of a skate park, discovering a company based in Joplin, Missouri, that constructs skate parks. He then reached out to an Omaha-based foundation for potential funds. The one-page letter he crafted asking for money included the statistic about the six young people who had taken their own lives in one night on the reservation.
A day after receiving Starita’s letter, the Lozier Foundation contacted him to say it would contribute $250,000 toward the skate park. Others also contributed toward the project, and Starita, with Grant’s help, managed to raise $400,000.
It was hard for those he contacted to say no, Starita said. “The cause was so righteous.”
Omaha World-Herald: Skate park offers a new adventure for kids on Omaha Nation Reservation
As construction on the skate park began, young people would visit the site to watch work being done.
“They were absolutely thrilled,” he said. “They just couldn’t believe it.”
Construction finished in September, and the grand opening was held in mid-October.
Starita said he plans to use funds left over from the project to improve the city land around the skate park to include a gazebo and night lights, making it a focal point for the community.
Meanwhile, news of the skate park’s opening has elicited donations from around the country, including 40 new skateboards from a California donor and 40 new helmets from another donor, he said.
Grant, the Walthill Village Board member, said the skate park gives those youth who aren’t good at basketball – the primary athletic endeavor in the town – a way to demonstrate their mastery of a different sport.
He said his nephew, who has faced struggles in his life, uses the skate park regularly.
“That skate park has been an outlet for him,” Grant said. “It’s helped him open up and express himself.
“A lot of other kids have had that impact as well.”