Interview: Jessica Forsyth of The Harold Hunter Foundation

Harold Hunter is a New York City skateboarder who will be remembered forever. He was someone who had the ability to connect with people from all over the world, and his personality was infectious. The people who knew and loved him started the Harold Hunter Foundation in his memory, a non-profit organization that uses skateboarding as a mechanism to reach New York City youth and helps them develop their talents to become better at skating and better equipped for skate industry careers. They work with high-risk young people, especially those with emotional or behavioral issues, and they’re utilizing the joy and creativity of skateboarding to transform lives and create a strong community. We sat down with Jessica Forsyth, one of the co-founders and the Executive Director of the Harold Hunter Foundation, to discuss how the Harold Hunter Foundation started, the work they do, and what they have planned for the future.

How did you know Harold and why was the Harold Hunter Foundation started?

Harold was like a surrogate brother to me. He was my sister’s best friend, so he became a member of my family since he always hung out at our house. The way the Harold Hunter Foundation started was very organic and collective. People who knew Harold thought there should be a foundation in his memory and everyone joined together to raise money. My family helped start and manage the organization, and then Harold’s friends like Jeff Pang, his older brother Ronald, who is also like family to us and is heavily involved with the foundation as a board member, and everyone else helped to get it going. Then we reached out to both his literal and figurative family to get as much representation from different sectors, making sure there was an even representation and making sure the skater voice was involved.

How did you decide what the purpose of HHF was going to be?

We thought a lot about what experiences Harold had as a result of skateboarding. He is emblematic of the sort of kid we want to work with. He grew up in the projects in the Lower East Side, where there were a lot of questionable influences and a lot of trouble to get into. If he hadn’t found skateboarding, he probably would have gotten into a lot more trouble and not had the amazing experiences he had. He found an outlet at a pretty young age and it exposed him to a whole cross section of people. He traveled outside of his neighborhood, outside of the city and then worldwide, and he was an ambassador for kids like him. The first thing everyone thought of doing that would have been important to Harold was giving kids scholarships to go to Woodward because he absolutely loved it there. It was like heaven on Earth to him. He didn’t go as a camper, he went there as a visiting am and pro. We wanted to look out for New York City skaters, and give them the supports they needed that they might not get from their complicated home situations.

What does HHF do now for skateboarders?

We’re building programs that serve kids age 6 to adults in their 30s. All of our programs are designed to make the life transforming experiences that shaped Harold accessible to other kids like him. As I mentioned, we started with Woodward scholarships, but now it’s much more than that. We’re focusing on working in specific neighborhoods that have the highest rate of disengaged youth to offer them an option that will steadily keep them off the path of negative influences and keep them from a sedentary lifestyle. We start with a skateboarding program that we’re currently doing in Brownsville for 6-year-olds and have older skaters ranging from 13 to 25 act as mentors and instructors. We also provide skate day camp scholarships to kids ages 6 to 14 who become really interested, and then kids 15 to 17 are sent to Woodward. Once they are 18-years-old, we send kids to Element in California. We also do some rider development for the kids that are exceptionally good to help them to compete on a national level by providing them with travel support like when some recently competed in Volcom’s Wild in the Streets.

One of my favorite new programs called Kickflip is a digital media program for kids 14 to19-years-old that we operate in partnership with City Lore and Parsons. Kids had the opportunity learned about skateboarding video game and app coding, built circuit boards, and learned how to program them. It’s created an opportunity for us to show them the pathway to getting a career in something they like doing.

We also do an international service-learning program, which is based on Harold’s experiences traveling around the world. The goal is to empower kids who would never or rarely have the opportunity to travel abroad, connect with skaters from other parts of the world, and collaborate with the local skate community to do service projects in low-income areas. We’ve traveled to the Dominican Republic and we’re hoping to also do a trip with the Dominican skaters we work with to Cuba to do the same thing there.

Can you tell me about a particular kid’s success story?

In 2010, we did a program called “HHF in the Classroom” at a middle school in the Bronx that was specifically for kids with emotional and behavioral issues. We brought a bunch of guys from the skate industry, including Chad Muska, Luis Tolentino, Rodney Smith, and Steve Rodriguez, to do an intimate career day panel where students were able to ask them questions and then got to skate with the guys. That’s where we met one of the kids we currently work with, who has now been with us for three years. What’s most remarkable for me was his transformation from being a really awkward kid who socially and interpersonally was kind of strange. After that program, he reached out to continue working with us, so we took him on a trip to an indoor skatepark and sent him to Woodward, and he participated in the Kickflip program, where he met some of the other kids we work with. From there, he became friends with a lot of them. What I think is beautiful about skateboarding is that it’s a community that will absorb anyone. You can be bizarre and a social misfit, but everybody fits in. He’s completely transformed and now has a whole bunch of friends to skate with. It was such a small thing that we did by bringing him into the HHF community, but it’s had such a big impact on his life.

How has the skate industry supported HHF?

There are certain companies who had a relationship with Harold that have been loyal and supportive to us, like Shut, Zoo York, Supreme and Airwalk, and Woodward has been amazing to us as well. Then there’s also Harold’s friends like Giovanni Reda who has been so generous to help us make connections, including introducing us to The Berrics to partner with them, and Chad Muska who was an absolute love to Harold and has volunteered his time for our programs. I think the industry loves and remembers Harold, and overall, people in the industry are really excited and willing to help out, and are really positive about what we’re doing.

What are your plans for the future?

The plan for the future is to keep expanding our current programs and the number of kids we serve. We’re also thinking about all the different kinds of careers that are connected to the skate industry with a focus on digital media, and throughout the year, we want to start doing an after-school program that focuses on different units, including filming and editing, photography, graphic design, apparel and sneaker design, motion graphics, and video game and app development. Then in the summer, kids will have a chance to pick the area they were most interested in and concentrate their work on that. We also want to have a college and career readiness component to help them connect where they are currently with their skills and where they want to go. We want to help skaters to find a career path and give them an outlet to apply their skills to further their own community.

How can people get involved?

We’re really bare bones since we’re completely staffed by volunteers and have a very small operating budget. Right now, what we need more than anything are donations and people who can connect us others they know who might be interested in supporting us. We also need help finding collaborators like other community organizations, skate companies, corporations and businesses, and people who have expertise and time to help us. We’ve also done a lot of product collaborations like decks, T-shirts, and Skullcandy headphones, so if you skate and you need some new stuff, you can buy some of our products that help fund our work. If someone is interested in getting more experience in a particular area of expertise that could help us, we need help to film our programs, with social media, with blogging, with our website, and just spreading the word about the Harold Hunter Foundation.

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