World-famous ethnologist and conservationist Jane Goodall’s contributions to science would not have been possible without her mother, who walked away from a life to care for and assist her daughter in the jungle with an incredible work ethic. Jane’s achievements were only possible with her mother’s dedication, her well-resourced family, and research funding from academic institutions. I have three sons who may very well be brilliant, but if their futures depend on my capacity as a single mother to lend this very expensive level of support, they need to limit their research to within a 25-mile radius from home, one weekend per month, after I get tires for my Camry. Families in poverty are generally not well-traveled.
Within our 25-mile radius I have found a future Jane Goodall, except this future Jane Goodall is a young man interested in local human primates. Nathan Witt’s college career was put on hold because of COVID-19 precautions. He returned to his hometown, to two amazing parents, and to the small skate park he drove by in high school. Nathan gained insight into the kids at the skate park that parallels Goodall’s insight into chimpanzees. He observed the needs of the “not college bound” youth and young adults and passionately pursued solutions, recognizing skateboarding as a healthy coping tool providing escape from the realities of poverty and boredom.
The steep inclines of the skate park level the playing field for area youth, and the ability to learn new tricks is not impacted by household income or access to resources other than a skateboard. Nathan reports that youth repeatedly show up sober to maintain competitiveness. They also come because they have a positive, prosocial, young adult waiting for them at the park, which is located “on the wrong side of the tracks.” Nathan occupies space in the lives of youth sought after by predators. The underprivileged and affluent are welcomed as equals, and the result is community. Nathan establishes relationships with skaters by offering a sense of safety and belonging, in keeping with Ruby Payne’s work regarding emotional poverty. Mastering tricks on a skateboard is amazing physical exercise that offers the mental health benefits of being outside in the sun, getting vitamin D, improving balance (which supports bilateral brain development), and it is reported that young people put their phones down and pay attention to live human beings around them.
To have a shot at a Jane Goodall-level impact requires continued support, and that is exactly what Nathan Witt has. Both of his parents are not only educators, but Nathan’s father has a long list of troubled kids he has helped in settings ranging from extreme poverty to the well-resourced outdoor classroom of a Christian nature camp. Nathan’s mother introduces herself as a teacher who loves kids who are in trouble, claiming, “The more ‘broken’ they are, the more I love them.” She has a track record to prove it. This couple has showered more love onto rural southern communities than Bonnie and Clyde showered bullets.
Unlike the outlaws, the Witt’s love is building next-gen momentum. Slowly, local adults are picking up tools and joining the skaters’ effort to repair, improve, and expand the DIY skate park. As a result, a small coalition of community members meets monthly to combine resources aimed at meeting the needs of the youth, who range from happy to unhoused. Without being catapulted into adulthood with the capacities and continued resources of two capable parents, kids have an uphill battle to establish self-reliance. The coalition’s goals include high school discharge planning, creating a care plan, and supporting youth at their developmental age as opposed to their chronological age. Not all 18-year-olds are adults, but they age out of foster care just the same.
The Witts want every youth to access the advantages given to Nathan, the same advantages that allowed Goodall’s scientific advancements: support. Program sustainability requires community support. As a result of Nathan’s advocacy, Tamarisk Trejo, owner of the Trejo Boards skateboard design company, donated skateboards for youth without the ability to purchase them. Mineola Dental provides outreach and refreshments for meetings. St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church provides facilities. Judge Janae Holland rolled up her sleeves and labored alongside youth, some of whom were at risk of seeing her in court, and others who were in need of a second chance. Local physician Diana Bankhead offered to teach age-appropriate sex education to any minor with parental consent. Many individuals have invested both finances and time. However, the need simply outweighs the resources.
The ragtag community of youth is budding, and it charges Nathan’s personal batteries. Watch for his project to bloom with the vision, passion, and support of two dedicated parents who access all the resources of Jane Goodall, which include emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, relationships, support systems, and knowledge of hidden rules, according to Payne’s research. With community support, this privilege can be extended to every youth in the community. As a single mother, I am grateful Nathan Witt reached the same conclusion as Dr. Payne: It is all about relationships. Nathan can do amazing things on the four wheels of his skateboard, but it is the needs of others that really move him.