Fresno Skateboard Salvage decks out opportunities

Local nonprofit joins force with incarcerated artists, local talent to bring a bit of joy to low-income kids

(Fresno Skateboard Salavage)
(Fresno Skateboard Salavage)
Darren Fraser
Published April 19, 2024  • 
12:00 pm

FRESNO COUNTY – In 2016, Rodney Rodriguez, founder of the nonprofit Fresno Skateboard Salvage, had an epiphany — an idea that would eventually lead him to provide hundreds of local children in low-income communities with skateboards, and incarcerated artists with an opportunity to give back in a creative way.

Rodriguez, who was in his early 40s when he had this epiphany, is a lifelong skateboarder. At the time, he’d recently renewed his passion for the sport and saw something that disturbed him when he went to local skateparks.

“I would go to a park, and see kids looking in or kids that were in there on totally inadequate equipment,” Rodriguez said. “I thought, ‘Man, somebody should help them or they’re not going to stick around.’”

At first, Rodriguez said it seemed like an impractical idea that a young person in want of decent sports equipment might turn to more destructive ways to occupy their time. But he knew from experience of growing up in a tough neighborhood that it doesn’t take much to alter the path a child may take in life.

“I grew up in a very rough neighborhood,” he said. “Seeing kids who reminded me of myself as a young, low-income kid who wanted to play sports but they seemed unattainable due to our circumstances.”

Rodriguez said other sports came with complications such as cost, opportunity, time of year, etc., “But skateboarding was a thing I could just do, anytime, anywhere. It helped me. It sort of saved me,” he said.

Thus, out of that idea came Fresno Skateboard Salvage, a not-for-profit organization that gifts skateboards to kids from low-income communities; kids who, otherwise, would not be able to afford a board or a helmet. 

Even further than that, the nonprofit also provides incarcerated artists an opportunity to use the boards as their canvases, decorating them before they are gifted to local youth communities.

START OF FRESNO SKATEBOARD SALVAGE

Before it became what it is, Fresno Skateboard Salvage almost didn’t happen – and it almost had a different name to start. Despite no one knowing of the nonprofit right out of the gate, Rodriguez managed to scrape enough money together to produce stickers and shirts bearing the new name of the organization; until he received a phone call.

“Another organization that had a similar name got hold of me and threatened a lawsuit (over the name),” he said. This organization was also working in the same charity space as Rodriguez. He had an idea to try and collaborate with the organization, but they firmly disagreed with that option.

After that, Rodriguez had to toss out the stickers and shirts and start again with a new name. Luckily, he was aided in this endeavor by his wife, who is an artist. She transformed his new rudimentary logo into something marketable, and Fresno Skateboard Salvage was born. From there, Rodriguez found a local merchant who printed stickers for free.

“I hustled those stickers for $2 to everybody,” he said. With that, he raised enough money to print new shirts. Again, he found a local merchant who worked at a discount. He asked that people not buy, per se, but donate $20 for each shirt. All the money raised went into the enterprise. He purchased bearings and trucks from a local skate shop.

“I still had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I was just determined to do it.”

SKATEBOARD ART

Since it began in 2016, Skateboard Salvage has donated over 3,200 skateboards to children from low-income communities. The last event took place at the Pinedale Boys and Girls Club on Feb. 9, 2024. Skateboard Salvage donated between 50 and 60 skateboards.

Rodriguez continued to rely on stickers and shirts to generate income for the organization. A shift in his business model occurred when he attended an art show in downtown Fresno. The show featured hand painted decks – a deck is the actual board without the wheels and other equipment.

“I thought, ‘Man, that’s a pretty unique idea,’” he said. As fortune or luck would have it, Rodriguez had amassed a collection of used, beat up decks. He had a second epiphany.

“If I could get four, five or six artists to paint a few of these, I’ll make enough money for more bearings – which is all I thought would happen,” he said.

He went on social media looking for artists, and found more than he expected.

“I ended up with something like 50 pieces of original art on decks with no clue what to do next,” he said.

Rodriguez is friends with Scott Miller, who owns Gazebo Gardens in Fresno. Miller told Rodriguez to sell the decks at the Gardens.

“That was our first fundraising auction using art on skateboard decks,” he said. “It went pretty well. I think it made $1,100. We did that for a couple of years.”

When he isn’t at Skateboard Salvage, Rodriguez works as a truck driver delivering groceries all over the Central Valley. His routes take him past prisons – and thus, he had a third epiphany.

“I thought, ‘I bet there are a ton of artists in there, and if I could present this idea (of skateboard art) to them, they would love to help’,” he said.

In 2019, he approached a friend who ran a gardening class inside Avenal Prison. After he was cleared, Rodriguez joined his friend inside.

“I was scared to death,” he said. “I had never been in a prison. I didn’t want to look at anybody for too long. I didn’t know where to put my hands.”

He noticed the mood inside the class was considerably more mellow than the rest of the environment.

“The guys loved to garden,” he said.

After speaking with prison officials regarding his own program, he eventually received approval. He returned to Avenal three weeks later carrying used decks. This was the start of prison skateboard art.

HOW IT WORKS

The program now includes about 125 inmates from five prisons – Avenal, Corcoran, Chowchilla Men’s and Women’s, Salinas and Soledad. Rodriguez is in negotiations to add Tehachapi to the roster.

Twice a year, Rodriguez rounds up decks, which have been donated at various businesses in Fresno. After the boards have been stripped and returned to their natural state, Rodriguez makes the prison rounds. The artists typically complete the decks in four to five months. Rodriguez auctions the art on FSS Auctions, a Facebook page devoted exclusively to the sale of inmate art. 

Skateboard Salvage continues to host live auctions of decks painted by local artists. Rodriguez said the next auction is scheduled for June but a date has not been set. All the money raised goes toward the program and the purchasing of new skateboards for kids.

There have been significant changes to the program since its inception. In 2018, Skateboard Salvage became a nonprofit. It also acquired a wholesale purchasing license, which means instead of buying skateboards from local retailers, it can purchase boards, in bulk, from distributors, which drives down the cost.

“I only buy things on clearance,” Rodriguez said. “We’re still giving these kids super quality boards but we’re buying in bulk – something they’re getting rid of.”

He said the price of a typical board is about $50. A helmet runs about $10.

During its first year, Skateboard Salvage donated less than 50 skateboards. Rodriguez said the program now averages about 700 donations each year. 

Last year, the program donated 738 skateboards. Lately, the recipients have been kids from various boys and girls clubs in the area – West Fresno, East Fresno, Clovis, Merced. Rodriguez said the next event will be at the Zimmerman Boys and Girls Club, located at Fresno and Olive, near where Rodriguez grew up.

“These clubs are always situated in areas where the most help is needed,” he said. “It’s been perfect. It’s been great knowing the boards are going to kids who will appreciate them.”

For Rodriguez, the gratification he receives from the program is twofold. The first part, of course, has to do with the kids.

“When this brand new skateboard is given to them and the look in their eye is joy? I can’t replicate the feeling from all the work you went through to get to that point. That kid smiles like he’s holding gold,” he said.

The second part was unexpected.

“The other part I didn’t see coming. I thought I was going into prison just looking for help and these guys were going to help and not feel anything at all about this,” said Rodriguez. “I feel like I’m running two different nonprofits now.”

Rodriguez described it as a way to offer redemption to incarcerated humans, who he said show gratitude at being provided with this opportunity.

“They are desperately trying to prove that they are beneficial,” Rodriguez said. “I am just offering them an opportunity to let them help kids.”

Darren Fraser
Reporter