There’s a hole in the fence along the Prairie Path that’s pretty much invisible to people who don’t know it’s there. Slip through this hole and down a hill, and you’ll find a network of bike ramps built from mud and maintained for years by the BMX riders who live nearby.
Teens practicing tricks and jumps literally off the beaten path in the woods sounds dangerous. It probably is, but these dedicated riders are desperate.
There are skate parks in Villa Park, Lombard, Glen Ellyn and Elmhurst, but BMXers complain they are poorly maintained, with cracks in the sidewalks and bad equipment. Many also don’t allow bikes. With nowhere else to go, these young men retreat to their homemade course in the woods.
In 2007, Paulina Jimenez, a Villa Park resident and mother of a BMX rider, discovered the lack of community resources for her son and his friends. Joel Anderson, 11, was just getting interested in skating, and Jimenez, who was new to the area, took him to the Villa Park skate park on a recommendation from a neighbor.
“I brought my camera to take pictures of him skating,” she said. “But when we got there, instead of taking pictures of him, I took pictures of the skate park. It was extremely dangerous to skate. I was speechless — it was not what a skate park should be.”
The photos she took that day show deep cracks in the concrete, a broken fence surrounding the complex and a general sense of disarray.
Jimenez didn’t think this was right, so she went online to do some research. She found The Tony Hawk Foundation, an organization that supports the creation of public, community skate parks, and then she got a group together.
From a network of parents, community members, park district leaders, skaters and BMX riders emerged the Villa Park Skate Park Committee, an organization devoted to constructing a well-planned, well-constructed and well-maintained skate park in the community.
Jimenez founded the Villa Park Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization, so they could apply for grants. They received grants from Allstate, the Tony Hawk Foundation and most recently, the Pepsi Refresh Grant.
“It’s more organized,” Jimenez said. “We treat it like a business.”
The committee also spread the word throughout the community and held fundraisers. Donations in the form of cash, services and supplies poured in to transform the on-paper skate park design into reality.
“People felt comfortable donating to a non-profit because they know where the money’s going,” Jimenez added.
Who are they?
It may be adults who organized the non-profits and applied for grants, but much of the legwork on this project has been done by a tight network of young men who currently ride and skate in broken skate parks or on mud ramps in the woods.
It’s a small group that came together around the passion for skating and BMX, and they’re the ones who want to see the skate park built. They have been at every fundraiser, spread the word about the campaign through social media and reached out to other skate communities for support.
Nick Jones, 18, of Villa Park contacted 10 professional BMXers to get support and help with fundraising, and they responded.
It’s a group of eight or nine who come together. They wear hoodies and skate shoes, some wear T-shirts that they made to help advertise the skate park fundraisers.
There’s the stigma that carries for skaters and BMXers, and skate parks are treated a little differently than baseball diamonds and soccer fields. But Jimenez considers skating equal to any other sport, and the boys who ride to be serious athletes.
“They see a kid on a skateboard and think he’s up to no good,” said Nate Brown, 19, of Villa Park. “But we get used to it.”
When asked if skating is the most important thing for these guys, head nods and a collective “yeah” comes from the group.
The passion and the devotion for skating is there. How else could teenagers stay committed to a single project for nearly five years?
“They need this,” said Carrie Osing, a member of the Villa Park Community Foundation, whose 7-year-old son is already riding with the older boys. “There is no other way to explain it. They’re anxious and excited to see it done.”
While there are already the other skate parks in nearby towns, these boys are determined to see the professionally designed park. To them, the local parks that exist now are not designed with skaters and BMXers in mind, and they don’t want the same mistake made again.
The plans are ready, the land’s been surveyed, contractors lined up, materials assembled. But ground hasn’t been broken. What’s holding up construction? About $25,000.
As the economy weakened, people’s personal funds, ability and willingness to donate to charities dwindled. The Villa Park Skate Park Committee is still working to raise the money, but desperation has seeped into the determined mission.
“We’re ready, they’re ready,” Jimenez said. “It’s been a struggle and people get discouraged, especially after what’s happened this year.”
The Villa Park Parks and Recreation Department went to Springfield last week to present a proposal for an Open Space Land Acquisition and Development grant that would bring $239,600 to the village, and the village would be responsible for matching this amount, said Greg Gola, parks and recreation director.
A portion of this money would be used to make up the balance on the skate park project, and the rest would go to finance construction of the playground, vegetable and butterfly gardens, Bocce Ball and other structures intended to go in the area surrounding the skate park, Gola said. The idea is to design this site as a central gathering point in the community.
If the grant comes through — the village expects to hear back in January — ground could break at the beginning of the 2012 construction season, Jimenez said. If the grant application gets denied, the committee will most likely move on to Plan B, which she said would consist of building the park in two phases.
Early in the planning phases, members discussed scaling down the project to make it a less ambitious fundraising project, but they’ve come too far to bring down the plans now.
“There’s no point in that,” Osing said. “Everyone would just be disappointed.”
Especially, the young men who skate and ride and have been planning for the park for which they’ve helped raise funds for nearly five years.
As they’ve come too far to quit now, all they can think about is the first thing they’re going to do when the park opens. The young men all collectively agree that they’ll be there skating all the time, learning new tricks and trying out the brand-new equipment.
“I’m going to get my camera and start making videos,” Brown said.