For Robert Schneps ’18, the world is a giant skate park.
Where others see a metal bannister, Schneps envisions a railing perfect for a sweet grind. Where there’s a defined architectural detail, Schneps imagines a bank ready made for a kick flip. A skateboarder since childhood, the Suffolk junior enjoys not only nailing gravity-defying tricks, but also the camaraderie and self-esteem he garners while out on his board.
“It taught me resilience,” he says. “It taught me about getting back up when you’ve been tossed.”
Schneps’s ability to see skateboarding as a springboard led him to start On Board Boston, a nonprofit that not only teaches his favorite sport to Boston’s at-risk youth but, as he sees it, also instills discipline, builds self-confidence, and provides mentorship.
“When you’re trying the same trick for an hour and a half and not getting it, when you finally land it, here’s so much progression and satisfaction,” said Schneps, an advertising major. “There’s a certain amount of insanity in trying a trick you won’t land for an hour and a half, but once you get that trick, you can’t compare it to anything else. It’s a self-esteem booster, and it helped me understand anything is really achievable if you try it. People always say that, but it’s such a tangible idea in skateboarding.”
Seed money from University
Schneps’s idea became reality after he was one of two Suffolk students to win the University’s inaugural Innovation Fellowship through Suffolk’s Center for Innovative Collaboration and Leadership. A $2,000 award gave Schneps the financial boost he needed to start On Board Boston. “Without that I wouldn’t have been able to do this,” he said. “That kick-started everything and gave me the confidence to do this.”
Dominic Thomas, the Center for Innovative Collaboration and Leadership’s co-director and an associate professor of information systems and operations management, said the Innovation Fellowship was created to nurture inventive ideas among students.
“We wanted to catch students, especially those with a passion for doing something innovative, and give them an opportunity to continue that passion,” he said. “We want to be that opportunity for students to get deeper into these really valuable ideas that they have. The degree of creativity and innovation on this campus is high, and the hunger for simple resources to be able to get deep into these passions is high.”
Concept developed in sociology class
Although Schneps, 20, who grew up in Cambridge, had long wanted to launch a skateboarding-focused nonprofit—his original idea was to bring skateboards to a juvenile prison—his concept took shape last spring when he enrolled in Professor Erica Gebo’s sociology class on street gangs, and a decisive moment was spurred by a film.
“There’s this one instance where a girl was talking about how she felt very isolated and alone. She didn’t have strong community support, and she found that in a street gang,” Schneps recalled. “As she’s talking I’m looking behind her in this documentary, and I see a perfect bank, a small platform. I’m thinking that would be great to skate—why isn’t she doing that?”
Gebo was impressed by Schneps’s desire to help underprivileged kids.
“He really wanted to be involved in his community and be involved with kids who didn’t have the same access to some of the things he had growing up,” Gebo said. “He started talking to me about working on a nonprofit and working with kids. So when the announcement came out about the innovation award, I said: ‘You should do this.’ We talked about skateboarding as his passion, but also as a way to communicate with young people.”
Gebo helped Schneps write his fellowship proposal, as well as focusing his ideas about how skateboarding could provide stability for young people. At the time, Schneps was working as a public relations intern at Action for Boston Community Development, a nonprofit human services organization, which sponsored a one-day program for kids at PopAllston, a Boston skate park. What Schneps witnessed—kids on boards learning new things and having fun—compelled, him to start On Board Boston.
Local businesses Orchard Skate Shop and Maximum Hesh donated used equipment and skateboards, while Pop Allston supplied helmets. Schneps also received a donation of five helmets from Bern Unlimited, a Massachusetts-based head-protection gear company. On Board Boston held its first event with the Peace Institute in Dorchester, an organization that works with families who have lost loved ones to violence.
“We came with a bunch of skateboards, worked with fifteen to twenty kids, had a blast, and skated the entire time,” Schneps said. “Mostly girls were skating with us, and they all skated so much better than the guys. The kids loved it.”
After a second event in Somerville, Schneps launched a 10-week pilot program with Charlesview, an Allston-Brighton nonprofit. On Board Boston now hosts 12 kids, ranging in age from 6 to 14, for two hours every Saturday morning. He also has several other skateboarders working with his organization as mentors for the children. Looking ahead, Schneps would like to expand into 10 schools per semester.
“I’ve been applying skateboarding to education ,because you’re learning similar skills,” he says. “With learning a new subject, it might seem overwhelming and it might seem confusing to you – same as with a kick flip. But once you put that effort and time in, things start to click. It’s helped me have a better outlook on tackling difficult and challenging subjects. Plus, the feeling you get when you’re out skateboarding is, you forget about all the bad things going on in your life. You just breathe and skate and focus on something else.”