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VOL. 126 | NO. 128 | Friday, July 1, 2011

Shafer Mentors Children Through Skating

By Houston Cofield

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Aaron Shafer works as a production scientist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, but after leading a movement for Memphis’ newest skate park and teaching children and teenagers how to drop in on a half-pipe in his backyard, Shafer’s real passion is mentoring kids in the Memphis community.


(Photo: Houston Cofield)

“When it comes to mentoring kids, it’s just organic. When kids come over to skate, I get to hang out and get to know them and that’s all part of the process,” Shafer said.

Shafer grew up skating and surfing in San Francisco from the age of 13.

“When surfing gets in your blood, it’s in there forever,” Shafer said.

With many of the skateparks closing down or going private in the 1980s, Shafer didn’t have much of an opportunity to skate, so he spent most of his free time riding 12-foot waves on the California coastline.

Shafer began to take skating seriously at the age of 36 when he moved to Stanford University to work on his post-doctorate fellowship.

“It was either drive 30 minutes to go surf, or roll out of bed and go skate at the new park across the street from my apartment,” Shafer said. “I chose to skate.”

After taking a job at St. Jude, Shafer left the West Coast behind for landlocked Memphis, miles away from the waves of the Pacific and lacking in public skateparks.

“I’m going to build a skatepark in this town,” Shafer told his wife as they made their way across the Mississippi River bridge.

Shafer arrived in Memphis in early August 2006, and a website was up and running by late September.

Little did he know that his dreams of a public skatepark would take more than four years to have Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. break ground on the 10,000-square-foot plot located in Tobey Park.

“Aaron’s ‘never say die’ and ‘continue to press on’ attitude is what separates him from people who have ideas and say they are going to do things,” said Thurman Richardson, a close friend of Shafer’s.

Shafer is the type of guy who takes his ideas and makes them into something that is real, Richardson said.

And after much delay and waiting, Shafer’s ideas for the park will finally be something tangible with plans calling for the park to open in late fall.

Along with Shafer’s involvement with community projects, he enjoys the opportunity to pass his love for skating on to children. Shafer gives skate lessons to 6- to 10-year-olds in his neighborhood every Tuesday afternoon.

On Tuesday afternoons, if weather permits, a group of devout 6- to 10-year-olds can be found crowded onto Shafer’s backyard half-pipe.

“Aaron looks at his neighbors as his family, and he sees his neighbors’ success and his neighbors’ kids’ success and his community’s success as his success as well,” Richardson said.

Along with Shafer’s involvement in his neighborhood, he makes a point to reach out to the larger Memphis community as well. One of the biggest things about the new park that he is looking forward to is hanging out with kids and teaching them to skate at least one Saturday of the month.

“What’s exciting about the skatepark is that it will provide a meeting ground where people can meet who wouldn’t normally bump into each other,” Shafer said.

Shafer also thinks it is important for kids to socialize with people in their 30s and 40s to learn from them. Though most children might find it weird to hang out with someone 20 or 30 years older, Shafer said that once a 41-year-old rips by them on a skateboard they’ll want to talk.

He said he is also looking forward to seeing more families and parents at the skatepark so relationships can be formed. Shafer said it is rare to see parents at skateparks, but because of the location and the design of the park, he believes it will be a place that promotes interaction.

Shafer is involved with The Leadership Academy, where he helps young people connect with one another, as well as the Greenlaw Community Center, where he invests his time skating with kids at its indoor skatepark.

“Those kids know him and trust him,” Richardson said. “They know he’s real and doesn’t just show up down here once or twice a year for some community event, but he has made them a part of his life.”

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